Retrospective BONUS: Hannibal (2013-2015)

Welcome back to a very special bonus entry in the Hannibal Lecter retrospective! In today’s post we’re going to be looking at the three seasons of the the TV series Hannibal! I set a precedent way back with The Planet of the Apes franchise that TV series weren’t on the table when I do retrospectives since they add a ton of extra work hours on top of having to watch, research and review however many movies are in that franchise already and, like I’ve said, I don’t get paid for this so I don’t really feel the need to go to that extra effort. However, binging Hannibal on Netflix was the catalyst that led to me doing this retrospective series in the first place, so it felt appropriate to cover it this time.

Also, for simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to the TV series simply as Hannibal in this article. For the novel or the Ridley Scott film of the same name that we’ve already covered in this retrospective series, I will refer to those as “the novel Hannibal” and Hannibal (2001) respectively as needed.

Here, enjoy some classy promotional art for all three seasons!

PRODUCTION
After Hannibal Rising‘s poor showing at the box office, it was obvious that interest in the character had waned and the franchise went into dormancy. On November 10, 2010, long-time rights-holder of the Hannibal Lecter character Dino de Laurentiis died and the rights passed to his estate and wife, Martha. Meanwhile, Universal had a stake in the character as well, while MGM still retained the rights to the characters in The Silence of the Lambs (specifically Clarice Starling and Buffalo Bill). With de Laurentiis’ death, it seems like the franchise began to make some new moves. Katie O’Connell began developing a Hannibal Lecter TV series at NBC (a television subsidiary of the same corporation that owns Universal) in 2011. Bryan Fuller, who was coming off of creating the critically acclaimed series Pushing Daisies was asked to helm the show and produce a pilot script. However, the script was so good that the show was financed and put into full production of a 13-episode season without requiring a pilot episode. Fuller based the series around the relationship between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham, while he planned to spend the first two or three seasons on the backstory prior to the novels, before moving into the ground covered by the novels and then ending after one more original season.

Perhaps sensing the excitement growing for Fuller’s take on Hannibal Lecter, only a couple months after Hannibal went into production, Lifetime announced that they were going to produce their own series revolving around Clarice Starling (MGM was producing this series). However, the show never entered full production and was shelved. Fuller had hoped to secure the rights to The Silence of the Lambs characters if they ever reached that point in the show, so it’s probably for the best that it didn’t move forward.

Hugh Dancy was the first actor cast, playing Will Graham. Mads Mikkelsen (probably best known at the time as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale) was cast next as Hannibal Lecter. Rounding out the main cast was Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford. Fishburne was just coming off of a tenure on CSI, where he had replaced Manhunter-lead William Petersen’s character. Several other supporting characters were cast thereafter, including Caroline Dhavernas as Alana Bloom, Hettienne Park as Beverly Katz, Lara Jean Chorostecki as Freddie Lounds, Kacey Rohl as Abigail Hobbs, Raúl Esparza as Frederick Chilton and Gillian Anderson as Bedelia Du Maurier, Hannibal’s therapist. Anderson, you may remember, was one of the actresses on the shortlist to play the recast Clarice Starling in Hannibal (2001), so it was exciting to finally see her get a role in this franchise.

The first season was critically acclaimed and was nominated for several awards, winning (among others) Best Network Television Series and Best Actor on Television at the Saturn Awards in 2014. However, it didn’t do very well in its viewer ratings, likely due to the fact that NBC kept putting it in terrible time slots that kept it from growing an audience. After some apprehension, especially given the show’s considerable budget, NBC reviewed the series for another 13-episode season. For the second season, the supporting cast was expanded by the likes of Cynthia Nixon (of Sex and the City fame) as Kade Prurnell, Katharine Isabelle (the lovely Canadian scream queen of Ginger Snaps fame) as Margot Verger and Michael Pitt as Mason Verger. In addition, Fuller tried to secure freaking David Bowie to play Hannibal’s uncle Robert, but Bowie was unavailable and so the part was scrapped from the story. Unfortunately, similar viewer ratings-issues plagued the second season of Hannibal – the poor ratings and gore meant that they wouldn’t give it a prime time slot, but the time slot that they put it into guaranteed that it wouldn’t foster a wide enough audience. Furthermore, the fact that it was a network TV show ran counter to the series’ insanely violent content and some even speculated that the show would fare better on a cable network where such extreme content was expected. That said, the show’s critical reception was even greater than it had been previously and the show was nominated for even more awards, once again winning Best Network Television Series and Best Actor on Television at the Saturn Awards in 2015, as well as winning Best Supporting Actor on Television this time. This might be why NBC once again renewed the series for a third season.

For the third season of the show, Bryan Fuller dived right into adapting and remixing the books for television. The first half of the season adapts the novel Hannibal, while also mixing in elements from Hannibal Rising. The second half then adapts the events of Red Dragon. Michael Pitt suddenly decided to leave the cast and was replaced by Joe Anderson. Several new supporting cast members were added, including Fortunato Cerlino as Rinaldo Pazzi, Tao Okamoto as Chiyoh (a handmaid of Lady Murasaki), Richard Armatage (Thorin Oakenshield himself!) as Francis Dolarhyde, Rutina Wesley as Reba McClane and Nina Arianda as Molly Graham. However, the ratings still didn’t pick up and even before season three had finished airing, NBC announced that they were cancelling the series. Despite this sad news, the third season was just as acclaimed as ever, being nominated for (and winning) several more awards as fans mourned its cancellation. Since then, there were talks that Amazon or Netflix may pick up the series for renewal, but nothing has materialized…

PLOT SYNOPSIS
In the first season of the show, Will Graham is teaching at the FBI when Jack Crawford convinces him to come back into the field to help lend his talents to the hunt for the serial killer known as the Minnesota Shrike. We discover that Graham has a talent for empathy, being able to look at a crime scene and intuit the killer’s motivations and design. This takes a toll on him mentally though and Crawford asks Hannibal Lecter to monitor Will to ensure that he doesn’t harm himself. During the hunt for the Shrike, Lecter deduces the identity of the killer, Garrett Jacob Hobbs, and warns him that the FBI are coming. When they arrive, Graham is forced to kill Hobbs when he tries to cut his daughter Abigail’s throat. Graham and Lecter begin to care for Abigail while continuing to solve crimes for the FBI. During the course of the season, a serial killer known as the Chesapeake Ripper begins killing again and the hunt for this killer gets underway. At one point, it is believed that a former surgeon and psychiatric patient named Abel Gideon is the Chesapeake Ripper, but it is discovered that this is a delusion implanted by Frederick Chilton in an attempt to gain notoriety. In retribution, Gideon escapes, goes on a murder spree and mutilates Chilton, removing several of his internal organs before he is apprehended by Graham. During this time, Abigail is induced to murder a man who had been harassing her, which Hannibal helps her to cover-up. Graham’s mental state deteriorates more and more as the season progresses and eventually we come to discover that Hannibal has been accelerating this decline, subjecting him to experimental treatments and lying about his diagnoses. However, Graham begins to realize that there is a greater design at work and that several of the recent murders they’ve been tracking have had a pattern to them. Graham has a hallucination and believes that he has killed Abigail, when in reality Hannibal corners her and whisks her away. Graham is arrested for Abigail’s murder, but escapes. Realizing that Hannibal is the Chesapeake Ripper and has been manipulating him all this time, Graham tries to kill him but is shot and put into psychiatric care by Jack Crawford.

In the second season, Kade Prurnell is investigating Jack Crawford for misconduct in allowing Will Graham to have a mental breakdown on his watch. Meanwhile, Hannibal begins taking Graham’s place as an FBI profiler in the field, but uses it as an opportunity to commit more murders. Graham’s case goes to trial, but someone begins murdering the bailiff and the judge in a style similar to the murders Will is accused of, in order to try to save Graham from trial. Fellow FBI agent Beverly Katz begins going to Graham for insight into the murders and decides to investigate Hannibal. This ends in her death as Beverly’s evicerated body is found on display afterwards. Seeking revenge, Graham learns that an orderly at the psychiatric hospital is responsible for the death of the bailiff. The orderly believes that Graham is responsible for the crimes he is accused of and considers himself a big fan. Will uses his devotion to try to get him to kill Hannibal, but the attempt is foiled by Jack Crawford. Soon after, Jack Crawford traces clues from the Chesapeake Ripper and finds a trainee of his who had gone missing years before, Miriam Lass, still alive and held captive by the Ripper. With no evidence held against him, Will Graham is released from custody and attempts to find a way to prove his allegations about Hannibal. However, due to hypnotherapy, Miriam Lass believes that Frederick Chilton is the Chesapeake Ripper and, in a fit of panic, shoots him in the face. He survives, but is arrested for the Ripper’s crimes.

Following this, Graham goes back to work at the FBI and decides to become Hannibal’s patient again, although now Hannibal nudges Graham towards committing murder with him. Hannibal sends one of his former patients to kill Will in retribution for Graham’s earlier attempted murder, but Graham kills and mutilates him, saying that they’re even now and showing that he is willing to play Hannibal’s game now. Shortly thereafter, Freddie Lounds is investigating Will Graham when she is discovered and then her flaming body is found afterwards, presumably murdered by Graham. Meanwhile, Hannibal is trying to get one of his other patients, Margot Verger, to kill her abusive brother, Mason. Instead, she sleeps with Will Graham in order to get pregnant and be able to birth an heir to the Verger family fortune. When Hannibal informs Mason of this, he has his sister’s baby aborted and sterilizes her. Will flies into a rage and is tempted to kill Mason, but instead warns him that Hannibal is playing them all in an attempt to get Verger to kill Hannibal. We then discover that Will has been working with Jack Crawford all along, that Freddie Lounds faked her death to provide cover and that they have secured testimony from Hannibal’s therapist, Bedelia Du Maurier – all they need now is to get concrete evidence of Hannibal attempting to commit murder, since thus far he has only been caught using manipulation. Verger kidnaps Hannibal and attempts to feed him to his pigs. Will hopes that this will be his chance to get evidence, but when he frees Hannibal he gets knocked out by Verger’s men and Hannibal escapes with Mason. He drugs Mason and convinces him to cut off his own face and feed it to Will’s dogs before breaking his neck. Sensing the FBI closing in, Hannibal suggests that it’s time for he and Graham to run away together. They plan to murder Jack Crawford and then run, while Will simultaneously plans with Crawford to use the opportunity to arrest Hannibal. The sting moves forward sooner than planned though, as Prurnell becomes aware of the plan and tries to stop it and Graham warns Lecter in advance. Jack confronts Hannibal and is nearly killed when Alana Bloom arrives and draws Hannibal’s attention away. She is shocked to find Abigail Hobbs upstairs, who then pushes Alana out the window onto the concrete below. Will then arrives and is stabbed and nearly gutted by a wounded and betrayed Hannibal, who then cuts Abigail’s throat. The entire main cast lies bleeding out as the episode ends with Hannibal escaping to Europe with Bedelia Du Maurier.

The third season picks up with Hannibal and Bedelia living together in Italy. Hannibal has assumed the identity of a Dr. Fell and is attempting to become a curator at a local museum, murdering his way up to promotion as Bedelia grows increasingly erratic with his brazenness. We soon discover that Will, Jack and Alana all survived their encounter with Hannibal at the end of the last season and are all hunting down Hannibal with a vengeance (Abigail succumbed to her throat slash and bled out). In Will and Jack’s case, both are following clues which lead them to Italy directly, whereas Alana joins forces with Mason Verger and helps him to put out a bounty to capture Lecter. An Italian detective, Rinaldo Pazzi, is on Hannibal’s trail as well. Will travels to Hannibal’s childhood home and meets Chiyo, a handmaiden of Hannibal’s aunt. For years she has been keeping a man prisoner in the basement for Hannibal, who he claims ate his sister Mischa. She refuses to kill him, believing it better to keep him alive. Will frees the man and Chiyo kills him in self-defense. Realizing that he was kept prisoner all along because Hannibal wanted to test if she was capable of killing him, Chiyo agrees to help Will find Hannibal, but soon doubts his intentions and throws him from a train on the way to Italy. Meanwhile, Pazzi contacts Verger and decides to collect the bounty on Hannibal’s head, but he is killed by Hannibal when he attempts to confront him. Jack and Will close in on the rogue Hannibal, apprehending Bedelia, who attempts to convince them that she has had a mental breakdown and no longer knows her true identity. When Will finally finds Hannibal, he tries to kill him but is shot by Chiyo instead. Will and Jack are then tied up by Hannibal, who attempts to cut open Will’s skull with a saw, but is thwarted when Verger’s men find the group and whisk Will and Hannibal away to his estate. Verger reveals that he plans to eat Hannibal and transplant Will’s face onto his in retribution for his own mutilation. However, Mason’s plan begins to unravel as Alana and Margot begin to make their own plans with Will and Hannibal, arranging for Hannibal to escape and take the blame for Verger’s murder. Hannibal then kills all Verger’s men, frees Will, and secures a sample of Mason’s semen for Margot so that Alana can serve as a surrogate mother, thereby allowing Margot to have a “suitable male heir” who can inherit the family fortune. Their plan complete, Margot and Alana are then able to kill the helpless Mason. Meanwhile, Hannibal takes Will back to his home and they agree to part ways. However, when the FBI arrives, they are shocked when Hannibal surrenders to them so that Graham will always know where to find Hannibal if he needs him.

The second half of the season then time skips three years. Jack Crawford once again recruits Will Graham, who has since married, to help him find the serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy. Graham is reluctant to get sucked back in once more but agrees to help. During the investigation, he finds that he needs to speak with Hannibal once more to get further insight into the case. Sometime later, Hannibal is contacted by the Tooth Fairy (Francis Dolarhyde), who is a big fan of Hannibal’s, and who tells him that he is becoming the “great red dragon” with his killing. Dolarhyde strikes up a relationship with blind co-worker Reba McClane, but when the relationship turns physical his hallucinations tell him that she is to be his next victim. In desperation, he eats the original copy of William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun but is nearly captured by Graham who had gone to view the painting as well. When the voices aren’t silenced, Hannibal suggests to Dolarhyde that he kill Will Graham’s family instead. Dolarhyde agrees and breaks into their home, nearly Molly Graham and her son, but they barely manage to escape the killer and get into FBI custody. Jack Crawford and Alana Bloom realize that Hannibal has been corresponding with Dolarhyde and try to get him to get information on the killer the next time he calls Hannibal, but during their next conversation Lecter warns Dolarhyde that they are being eavesdropped on and their conversation ends. With this avenue cut off, Will and Crawford attempt to draw out Dolarhyde by staging an unflattering interview about him with Frederick Chilton. This works, but instead of going after Graham, Dolarhyde captures Chilton and explains his motives to him before biting off his lips and then immolating Chilton. Chilton miraculously survives and accuses Graham of setting him up intentionally. Knowing that the dragon will come for Reba soon, Dolarhyde reveals his alter ego to her and then stages suicide in order to escape. He uses this opportunity to confront Graham and demands that he be able to see Hannibal. The FBI realizes that the body they have isn’t Dolarhyde and once again tries to figure out a way to draw him out. Graham suggests that they stage Hannibal’s escape in order to accomplish this. However, the attempt is thwarted when Dolarhyde attacks their convoy and Hannibal and Graham escape for real. They flee to a cliff-side house where Hannibal had previously held victims captive and are confronted by Dolarhyde. Dolarhyde severely wounds the pair, but they manage to overpower him and stab him to death. Hannibal and Graham embrace and then fall over the cliff-side together.


REVIEW
There are a lot of things to talk about with Hannibal, so we’ll start with the first thing that really struck me about this series: holy shit it is gory! It’s wild just how much Bryan Fuller was able to get away with for a network TV series, because the level of gore is beyond anything in the movies and even gets close to The Walking Dead levels of violence. Like, we’re talking a totem pole made of dead, dismembered bodies, a pair of bodies whose back skin has been cut off and turned into wings, a guy being given a Glasgow smile, a guy having his tongue pulled through his neck, disembowelling… and that’s just the first season! Subsequent seasons have such highlights as Mason Verger cutting his face off and feeding it to Will’s dogs (something so fucked up that even the notoriously twisted Hannibal (2001) shied away from showing it), a guy’s dismembered body being broken to fit onto the skeleton of a cave bear, and a guy having his lips bit off and body immolated. God forbid they show a nipple though! Seriously though, the only reason I think that they managed to get away with any of this is because they rarely show the act itself, just the aftermath, and a judicious amount of creative lightning. Hannibal really likes to revel in its gore so you should be aware of that going in – it’s not for the squeamish.

The next thing that will really strike you about Hannibal is the production quality and cinematography. Nearly every shot in Hannibal is beautiful, easily outstripping all previous Hannibal Lecter films in terms of pure aesthetic appeal. It’s not just for the sake of style though, the abstract and symbolic imagery is often used as a way to show us a characters’ psychoses. The most obvious example of this is Will Graham’s frequent hallucinations of a pitch-black man with antlers, representing his minds-eye view of the killer who is trying to elude him. Similarly, Francis Dolarhyde’s hallucinations are is also literally portrayed, showing him painfully growing a tail or literally becoming the Great Red Dragon of Blake’s painting as his delusion grips him more and more. While some may decry the lack of subtlety, portraying the characters’ minds in such a direct way on screen is not only effective, but it helps make for some compelling and unforgettable imagery as well.

Of course, we wouldn’t get nearly as much of this on-screen psychosis if Will Graham wasn’t our lead character. Luckily, Hugh Dancy’s portrayal of the character is by far the most interesting one we’ve gotten yet. In previous incarnations of the character, it didn’t feel like there was all that much to his empathetic talent – he was apparently able to get into the mind of a killer to solve their crimes, but ultimately it just felt like he was smart and noticed a little clue which led to the breakthrough to solve the case; empathy had very little to do with it. In Hannibal though, Will Graham’s empathy is practically a super power. We get a cool sequence every time he does it where he looks at the clues at the crime scene and then lives out what happens. Through this you actually get a sense that he’s doing something no one else could do, while simultaneously being able to understand why it would take such a hefty mental toll on him to do so. Will looks like he’s on the verge of a mental breakdown for half the series, even before Hannibal starts actively manipulating and accelerating that breakdown. Manhunter and Red Dragon talked big about how being able to think like a killer was treated like some sort of moral equivalence, but I never understood this argument – isn’t acting it out the issue, rather than being able to conceive of it? Hannibal, however, does a better job of showing that Will Graham is on the verge of going off the deep end and then some. No one knows how far Will will go over the line or where his allegiances lie, not even Will himself, so in the second half of season two you seriously believe that he would start indulging in his murderous side with Hannibal.

I’ve seen many people declare that Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter is the best portrayal of the character and… well, if we ignored Hannibal (2001) and Red Dragon then Hopkins might be close, but taking those two moustache-twirling portrayals into account I’m inclined to agree. Bryan Fuller and Mads Mikkelsen have described this incarnation of Hannibal as him being a personification of Lucifer, and it’s such a perfect way to describe this character. This version of Hannibal is still the refined, smart, high-class figure we know, but his evil is far more hands-off – he prefers to toy with his victims without them even knowing it, getting into their heads, tempting them, creating chaos when it interests him just to see what will happen. Since most of the characters don’t even realize that Hannibal is a serial killer for half of the series, this just makes him even more sinister and straight-up evil compared to previous incarnations. Hopkins’ Lecter was evil, sure, but they always tried to portray him as a killer with a moral compass. Mikkelsen’s Lecter is just pure evil though, treating everyone around him like playthings and holding their lives in his hands. Perhaps my favourite example is when he presides over Jack Crawford’s wife, Phyllis, as she attempts to commit suicide. After she has gone unconscious, he flips a coin to decide whether to save her life or not. It’s such a cold and emotionless response to such a charged action that it’s truly chilling that he doesn’t care about what he’s doing. Throughout the entire first season, Hannibal breaks Will’s mind, making him believe that he’s gone insane and murdered people, and when Hannibal is found out he only says that he was “curious about what would happen”. Hannibal then holds a lopsided amount of power and influence over Will for the rest of the series, causing Will to have a twisted sort of dependency on Hannibal. It makes for a super toxic relationship, one that is very uncomfortable to watch unfold (which infuriates me that so many people ship them and ignore Hannibal’s wildly abusive behaviour).

Really, most of the characters in Hannibal are portrayed at their best in this franchise, thanks largely due to the writing, the stellar cast and by virtue of being in a TV series which means more time for character growth. Laurence Fishburne is a great Jack Crawford. Fishburne could just coast by on his standard authority figure shtick (a la Mission: Impossible III, CSI, etc), but he imbues Crawford with additional depth and emotion. We actually get to really like and understand the character as we see him grapple with his wife’s imminent death, his guilt over pushing Will Graham to his limits and his sense of doom as he realizes that his close friend Hannibal has been betraying him all this time. I really like Scott Glenn’s portrayal of the character in The Silence of the Lambs, but Fishburne gets a lot more to work with in the show and makes for a much more interesting character. Mason Verger is also a bit more interesting in the show than he is in Hannibal (2001), since the show includes his abusive relationship with his sister, Margot, and expounds on the character’s obsession with eugenics and passing on his seed. He makes for a truly despicable villain, although I found Michael Pitt’s performance in season two far more interesting than Joe Anderson’s in season three. Pitt’s Mason is sinister, eccentric and arrogant, akin to a more expanded-upon version of Gary Oldman’s Mason, whereas Anderson’s Mason comes across more like a full-on angry bad guy the whole time. Perhaps my favourite performance in the entire show though is Raúl Esparza’s Frederick Chilton. Initially he just comes across as he does in the previous films – an arrogant, amoral, greasy asshole who gets what’s coming to him. However, as the show goes on you feel more and more sorry for him, in part due to Raúl Esparza’s fantastic performance. Like, maybe he deserved to get disembowelled for screwing with his patient’s mind, but I felt so sorry for him when Hannibal frames him for murder and then gets him shot in the face (which, we later find out, leaves him disfigured and blinded). As if that wasn’t bad enough, in season three he puts in a hell of a performance when Dolarhyde captures him – the terror that Esparza conveys during this scene makes it perhaps my favourite scene in the entire series. As if that wasn’t enough, he then gets his lips bit off and set on fire, leaving him horribly mutilated – plus it’s implied that Will set him up for this. Goddamn, I kind of just wish that they’d let him die, or at least make him the next season’s villain to let him get some revenge or something. Even smaller roles, like Freddie Lounds, get more depth to them in this show. Whereas previous incarnations just had Lounds as a sleazy, one-note journalist, this incarnation gives her a bit more depth. She’s ultimately concerned about getting the truth out there at all costs, even if it crosses ethical boundaries, which is far more intriguing than “wants money”.

The writing on the show tends to be strong as well, making for really engaging television. While most of the first season starts out as a CSI-style crime-of-the-week format, it really starts to hit its stride when the plot begins to revolve around the twisted relationship between Hannibal and Will Graham. Even these crime-of-the-week style episodes tend to have some great writing and themes that help justify their existence – for example, revelations during an episode revolving around a killer who is afraid of dying of cancer helps Jack Crawford to realize that his wife has cancer as well, while a later episode revolving around a killer who euthanizes victims as a “mercy” ties into Phyllis’ attempted suicide in the face of a drawn-out death. The second season doesn’t just rehash the first season’s formula, rather it turns it on its head and then goes completely in another direction. Season two starts with Will institutionalized and while I expected that it would be more of the same, but with Hannibal taking Will’s role in the FBI, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Season two instead focuses on Will’s (mis)trial before eventually bringing his murderous tutelage and attempt to entrap Hannibal to the forefront, making for some really gripping drama before ending in a Shakespearean-style bloodbath. The finale of season two has to be one of the most intense cliffhangers I’ve ever seen for a show and thank God they got the chance to follow it up or there would have been riots from fans. Season three continues to shake up the status quo, transplanting the series to Italy for several episodes, scattering its cast to the wind and adapting Hannibal and Red Dragon too for good measure. I definitely prefer the slow-building tension of Pazzi’s downfall in Hannibal (2001), but otherwise Hannibal‘s adaptation of the story cuts out a lot of the fat and boils down the story to its core – Hannibal’s on the run in Italy and Mason Verger’s trying to have him killed. It’s also rather interesting that they adapted this story out of continuity with the novel timeline, but that’s fine by me, I don’t understand why Mason Verger would wait decades to get his revenge on Hannibal Lecter anyway.

As for the Red Dragon half of season three… holy crap, it is the best (although not the most faithful) adaptation of the novel we’ve gotten by far. Richard Armitage is incredible as Francis Dolarhyde, effectively demonstrating this character’s overwhelming menace and making him a legitimately scary antagonist. He’s still sympathetic, like Ralph Fiennes’ rendition, but comes across as far more dangerous. His love interest, Rutina Welsey’s Reba McClane, is also really solid. While I don’t think she makes quite as much of an impression as Emily Watson’s adorably horny take on the character, Rutina is still fantastic in the role and is a big reason why we feel as much sympathy for Dolarhyde as we do. Dolarhyde and McClane dominate a good chunk of season three, but of course Will and Hannibal both get their own unique twists on the story, given that this is both an adaptation and a pseudo-sequel at the same time. In Manhunter (especially) and Red Dragon, Will is very much a family man at heart. Here, Will’s marriage is clearly an escape for him, a way to ignore his trauma, murderous temptations and his fascination with Hannibal Lecter. Meanwhile, Hannibal’s role gets beefed up, naturally. However, it is far better integrated into the plot than it was in Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon. Here, one can understand why Dolarhyde would be fanboying over Hannibal and, given all we know on this take of Lecter, we can understand why he would be toying with the killer and trying to drive Will over the edge. This all culminates in a totally original conclusion where Hannibal is used to draw out Dolarhyde, which results in he and Will escaping together and taking down Dolarhyde together. While a part of me wishes that they could have just stuck with the book’s ending, since this is a semi-sequel as well as an adaptation it makes sense that they would have to make the ending a bit more momentous, and in that regard they succeed.

As much as I like basically everything on this show, there are some aspects of the writing that bother me. First of all, maybe it’s due to the nature of being a TV serial, but the plot can get really ridiculous and contrived at times. Like, in the first season alone you’ve got like a dozen serial killers all operating in the vicinity of Baltimore at once? I get that it’s a TV show about cops and serial killers and therefore you need some killers for them to hunt, but the sheer volume of them that happen to be in each others’ circles just becomes silly upon reflection as the show goes on. There’s also the fact that Will straight-up admits to hiring a guy to get Hannibal killed, but then a couple episodes later he’s released from custody because they can’t find any evidence that he was involved in a different set of murders. Like… can’t they just keep him imprisoned for the attempted murder they know he committed? Or how about when Will dismembers and displays a body in public, ostensibly to maintain his cover as a burgeoning killer with Hannibal? You’re telling me that the FBI are okay with this, that they can just ignore that kind of action? Or how about Hannibal sawing Will’s head open, which gets interrupted by Verger’s men and then immediately forgotten and forgiven? As the series goes on, all these little things just add up and make nearly every single character on the show seem terrible at their jobs.

My other issue with the writing is that the female characters are almost entirely shafted by the show. Dr. Alana Bloom is by far the worst victim of this. In season one she is effectively Will’s love interest, guardian angel and moral compass, but doesn’t get a lot to do. In the second season, she then shifts to being Hannibal’s love interest, in part because she’s so distressed about what happened to Will, until she gets pushed out a window and left for dead. In season three she just goes off the rails, joining Mason Verger for revenge against Hannibal before falling in love with Margot Verger with zero set-up, then presiding over the institution that Hannibal is being kept in before just petering out of the story. For one of the headline characters on the show, the writers clearly have no idea what to do with Alana Bloom, just forcing her into where ever the plot can use her at any given time. It’s so bad that I effectively excised her role from my plot synopsis – she’s that inconsequential to the plot that she could be cut entirely. I also felt like Margot Verger wasn’t nearly as compelling as she should have been. She’s introduced as an abuse victim and then very suddenly becomes a love interest for Will, blatantly using him to get herself pregnant. When Mason finds out, she gets subjected to one of the most awful sequences in the show, where Mason has her child aborted and womb removed to prevent her from being able to conceive another. It’s fucking awful and while Margot does ultimately get her revenge, she spends the rest of season two and half of season three just operating as Mason’s lackey while she occasionally plots how to defeat him. She’s got some potentially strong material to work with but I feel like the show just doesn’t pay Margot her due in order to make it land. Beverly Katz also gets shafted in the second season. I really liked her character, easily being the most interesting member of the FBI support team and forming a close friendship with Will. However, she is captured and killed by Hannibal early in the second season… and then is basically forgotten after that. As Will’s complicated relationship with Hannibal deepens throughout the second and third season, it’s like the fact that he murdered her, mutilated her body, and then put it on display is completely forgotten and forgiven. Bedelia Du Maurier also gets screwed by the end of the third season. Her character is electrifying, managing to stay toe-to-toe with Hannibal in the first couple seasons, but by the third she has become increasingly erratic from their time spent together, to the point that she loses her mind and literally serves herself up to Hannibal. It’s an unfortunate fate for a character who had been so cunning and insightful up to that point. And what of Abigail Hobbs? She’s a major player in the first season, becoming Hannibal and Will’s surrogate daughter, but she gets whisked away by Hannibal and disappears for nearly the entirety of the second season, as everyone believes she is dead. Then, when she does show up, she’s lost her mind and is quickly killed by Hannibal in a jealous rage… like, why even bother to bring her back if you’re just going to kill her again for real? It’s such a shitty fate for another legitimately interesting character. These aren’t even all of the examples of treating female characters as afterthoughts in the show, just the most prominent, but they irk me all the same.

Nitpicks aside, Hannibal makes for great television. Everyone is giving it their all and they managed to put out a fantastic series that never really got the success it was due. I’d like to see what Bryan Fuller and company could have done with The Silence of the Lambs and onward, but if the series never gets picked up again, I can say confidently that it ended on a high note.

8/10

AFTERTHOUGHTS
So where does the franchise go from here? Unlike some retrospectives I’ve done, the path seems pretty clear in this case. For one thing, CBS has finally announced that they’re moving forward with Clarice, which is supposed to follow Clarice Starling a year after the events of The Silence of the Lambs play out. Given that MGM only owns the rights to that story and not Hannibal Lecter, I don’t really understand how they’re going to make it enticing for audiences, but Clarice Starling is a compelling enough character that I’m not willing to write it off yet. As for Hannibal, rumours of a fourth season have been persisting since even before the show’s cancellation. In fact, during the writing of this retrospectives series, more news came out that an announcement regarding the fourth season could be imminent. With the sudden surge in popularity that the series has found since coming to Netflix, the audience is finally there and I wouldn’t be surprised if we finally know the future of the series soon. Unfortunately, with Clarice underway, that makes an adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs incredibly unlikely. That’s the small screen covered, but what about the big screen? Bryan Fuller has expressed interest in making a film about this rendition of Hannibal Lecter and I would think it unlikely that we’ll see any other take on the character for quite some time, given how much Mads Mikkelsen’s rendition has captured the popular consciousness. With Thomas Harris having apparently moved on from the character (his most recent novel was 2019’s Cari Mora, a completely original tale divorced from Hannibal Lecter), it’s unlikely that we’ll be getting any more books to be adapted any time soon, meaning that the rights holders might finally have to start getting creative.

This is how I’d rank the series from worst to best:
1) The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – 9/10
2) Hannibal (2013-2015) – 8/10
3) Hannibal (2001) – 6.5/10 (again, I know a lot of people think this movie sucks, but give it another chance and just go with the campiness)
4) Manhunter (1986) – 6/10 (come at me, nerds)
5) Red Dragon (2002) – 6/10
6) Hannibal Rising (2007) – 4.5/10

Thanks for going through another retrospectives series with me. I always enjoy writing these things, even if the time commitment they require makes them difficult to put out more than once or twice a year. I can’t be certain when I will come out with a new blog post, but be sure to follow me on Twitter where I will keep you updated. ‘Til next time, bon appetit!

Please follow and like us:

Retrospective: Hannibal Rising (2007)

Welcome back to the Hannibal Lecter retrospective! In today’s entry we’re going to be looking back at 2007’s Hannibal Rising, the Anthony Hopkins-less prequel which goes back to Lecter’s origins. Could the film succeed without the star which had propelled it for the past 15 years? Read on to find out…

I’m “meh” on this poster. The eye makes for a nice callback to the much better The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal posters and the samurai mask is a clever way to play with series iconography, but there isn’t enough here to get me particularly excited. The mere presence of Hannibal Lecter would have to be enough for you to swoon for this to be truly effective.

PRODUCTION
Even prior to the release of Red Dragon, the producers were giving thought on how best to continue their franchise. During interviews to promote Red Dragon, Anthony Hopkins revealed that he had written his own screenplay for a sequel to Hannibal which would have wrapped up the series with Clarice shooting Lecter, but it was never picked up. The future of the franchise was uncertain for many years with the producers going quiet about their plans. Behind the scenes though, Dino de Laurentiis was eager to move forward with a prequel detailing Hannibal’s origins. He met with Thomas Harris and threatened to make a prequel without Harris’ involvement unless Harris would come up with a story in a timely manner. It is almost certain then that the notoriously slow Thomas Harris rushed out his next novel, Hannibal Rising, in record time to retain creative control, while also writing the accompanying screenplay for the movie adaptation. I was able to find shockingly little information about this film’s production history online, even less than Red Dragon, and this seems to be partially by design – the movie was kept a secret until only a few months before release. It seems that this was done in order to use the release of the novel as a springboard to generate hype for the film and prolong the book’s own popularity by extension. Even then, very little details were known about the film ahead of time – various incorrect rumours less than 5 months before the film’s release touted that the title would be Young Hannibal: Behind the Mask (perhaps changed because of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon?), that Anthony Hopkins would narrate the film, and that its final act would detail the time between Lecter’s arrival in America and his capture by Will Graham.

Hannibal Rising would be directed by British director Peter Webber. While not a well-known director, he was coming off of a huge critical success with his debut film Girl With a Pearl Earring and so was an interesting choice. The role of a young Hannibal Lecter would go to French actor Gaspard Ulliel, while the supporting cast would be filled out by Gong Li and such prestigious character actors as Rhys Ifans and Dominic West. After the smaller box office take by Red Dragon, the budget was also scaled back from $78 million to just $50 million.

The first trailer wouldn’t drop until mid-December 2006, just a month after the novel’s release, with the movie itself set to release less than two months later. Universal passed on distribution of the film this time around and instead it was picked up by The Weinstein Company, hoping to score themselves a hit. It wasn’t to be though because critical response to Hannibal Rising was scathing and the film opened to a modest box office take which quickly tapered off, bringing in on $82.2 million at the end of its worldwide gross… but honestly anything that makes Harvey Weinstein unhappy is a win for me.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
The film opens in 1944 with an eight-year-old Hannibal Lecter having to flee his family’s castle with his parents and little sister Mischa to avoid clashes between the Germans and Soviet Union. They retreat to a secluded cabin, but the war makes its way to the cabin and the parents are both killed during a skirmish. Hannibal and Mischa hide in the cabin until a group of five Axis deserters, led by the vicious Vladis Grutas, take shelter in the cabin. Low on food, the men decide to kill and eat Mischa in order to survive.

The film then moves forward eight years, with Hannibal back in Lecter Castle, which has been converted into an orphanage. Hannibal is still traumatized by his sister’s deaths and lashes out violently at everyone around him until he escapes to Paris. Here he finds his newly-windowed aunt, Lady Murasaki. She teaches Hannibal about the culture of the samurai. Hannibal takes one of her family swords and uses it to kill a local butcher who had insulted Lady Murasaki and who was a well-known Nazi collaborator during the war. A French detective named Pascal Popil, who hunts down war criminals, suspects Hannibal of the killing but is unable to pin the crime on him definitively.

Soon after, Hannibal enters medical school, when he finally resolves to hunt down the men who killed his sister. He is unable to recall their names, but when he witnesses a criminal being injected with sodium thiopental he steals some for himself to remember the details of what happened in the cabin. When he does so, he remembers that a bag containing the killers’ dog tags was left behind in the cabin when a bomber destroyed the building, which caused the deserters to flee and allowed Hannibal himself to avoid being eaten. Armed with this knowledge, he returns to Lithuania and finds the dog tags. However, one of the killers sees Lecter enter the country and follows him here, but Hannibal overpowers him and ties him to a tree. He tortures the man to find out where his compatriots are and then kills him when he finds out that one of the men, Kolnas, is in Paris and has been meeting with Grutas there.

Lecter goes with Lady Murasaki to a restaurant owned by Kolnas and slips Kolnas’ dog tag to his daughter as a warning. Kolnas meets with Grutas and the other deserters to warn them about Hannibal. Grutas sends one of the deserters to kill Hannibal, but Lecter is waiting for him and drowns him in his laboratory. Hannibal attacks Grutas in his home shortly thereafter, but his bodyguards break in and save him before Hannibal can get the killing blow, forcing him to escape. In retribution, Grutas kidnaps Lady Murasaki and calls Lecter to draw him out before taking her to his houseboat. Hannibal goes to Kolnas’ restaurant to find Murasaki and finds Kolnas there. He gets Kolnas to tell him where Grutas’ houseboat is before killing Kolnas. Hannibal makes his way aboard and kills everyone to get to Grutas. Before killing him, Grutas reveals that the final deserter is hiding out in Canada and tells Hannibal that he too consumed his sister. This infuriates Hannibal and he carves up Grutas in brutal fashion before escaping the boat and blowing it up to fake his death. He then heads to Canada and kills the last deserter.

REVIEW
Hannibal Rising reminds me of Leatherface, in that it’s a prequel that nobody asked for, turns the series’ main psycho into a teen heartthrob, and which puts in way more effort than you would expect from a straight-forward origin story. I imagine that this is because Thomas Harris wrote the plot for this film instead of de Laurentiis handing it off to someone else. You can tell that Harris was legitimately trying to tell a fresh story and tread new ground with this character, rather than just make a bunch of references to things that will define the character in later movies (for contrast, see Solo: A Star Wars Story). In the “Making Of” documentary, Peter Webber himself acknowledges that they were trying to reinvent the franchise and I have to give them some acknowledgement for making an actual effort… unfortunately, Hannibal Rising is a mess that squanders this admirable attempt at ambition.

While the story of Hannibal Rising is a fairly standard revenge plot and it demystifies Lecter as a character, there’s nothing inherently with it that would make for a fundamentally flawed film. Instead, it’s the way that the story is told that cripples this film. One issue is that there are various disparate plot threads which never come together in a satisfying manner. Take the fact that a big deal is made of Hannibal Lecter, Lady Murasaki and Inspector Popil all having lost their families in the war. This feels like it’s ripe for a thematic payoff, but it doesn’t actually matter in the end that all of these people share a common thread, it’s just something they mention from time to time. For that matter, Popil is supposed to be one of the main characters but he could easily be cut from the film and there’d be no difference made. It feels like he was added because there has to be an obligatory inspector character in a Hannibal Lecter movie, but he’s so useless – he immediately knows that Hannibal is a murderer but does nothing about it, provides absolutely no barrier to Hannibal achieving his goals and then shrugs his shoulders and assumes Hannibal’s dead at the end of the movie. Or what about the fact that the movie shows the bad guys burning photos of Hannibal’s family for warmth? Oh no, they’re symbolically tearing away the last connections he has to his family before they take Mischa away from him too! But no, like 15 minutes later we find out that Lady Murasaki has a bunch of photos of his family so it’s another missed opportunity to tell a deeper story. There’s so many little missed opportunities like these and when you think back on the film afterwards it makes the experience feel deflating.

There’s also the first hour of the film, which is overstuffed to the point that it gets rushed through in order to get to the generic revenge plot. The first 20 minutes deal with Hannibal’s childhood and rush through his parents’ death (a Russian tank shows up in the middle of an open clearing and then within seconds a squad of Stukas pass by and kill the parents) before the bad guys show up. Then we get the revelation that Hannibal’s been kept in an orphanage which used to be his parents’ castle and is bullied by everyone there, especially a cruel overseer. That doesn’t really matter though because less than 5 minutes later he’s already escaped the orphanage and makes his way to Paris. Then we get Hannibal training in the traditions of the samurai, which gets boiled down to one training montage before he’s out murdering dudes, heads off to medical school and decides that he wants to kill some Nazis. This break-neck pace means that characters have to be cartoonishly stereotypical. Need Hannibal to kill the butcher and make it feel justified? Quick, make him a two-dimensional racist, misogynist, Vichy asshole who’s just begging to get sliced up! Need to make us feel bad about Hannibal going on a murder spree? Quick, make one of the deserters a father! On a related note, it’s implied that Hannibal is so traumatized by his sister’s death that he won’t speak, but then he kills the butcher and is suddenly chatty as all hell with everyone. I believe that we’re supposed to infer that confronting his trauma is therapeutic for him, but him going from silent to chatty happens so suddenly and unceremoniously in the film that I can’t tell if we’re just missing story beats or if having him be silent that long was a mistake. Perhaps the best analogy to describe the first half of this movie is that it feels like one of those crappy musician biopics where they just string together a bunch of important sequences from the person’s life, but then don’t bother to make them build upon one another to make a satisfying story. I feel like this half of the film has some of the most interesting ideas, but the rushed nature means that we don’t get to enjoy it before we’ve gone and moved onto something else.

The rushed first half of the movie might get a pass if the second half made up for it, but unfortunately the bulk of this movie is just a dull revenge story that tries to turn Hannibal Lecter into a more violent cross between Batman and James Bond (oh hey, Batman Begins and Casino Royale came out a couple years before this movie, imagine that). If there is a theme in this movie it is “revenge makes you a monster”, but that is such bog-standard, well-worn ground for this kind of story. I know that some people considered Hannibal an anti-hero in The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, but he was still murdering people there whose worst act was that they were either in his way or kind of rude. In Hannibal Rising they have to make the people he kills unrepentant, cartoonish monsters. I’ve already covered Hannibal’s first kill, the butcher, and how much of an asshole he is, but the film even has Inspector Popil straight-up tell us that it’s basically fine that Hannibal murdered him. As for the deserters, not only did they all kill and eat Hannibal’s sister, but they’re also Nazi war criminals for good measure. Grutas is even worse, also being a sex trafficker and attempted rapist on top of everything else. With bad guys this shitty, it’s hard to care when the film pulls a “ahh but Hannibal enjoys killing people, he’s also a monster!”-style “twist” near the end. Sure, Hannibal’s a bad guy too but everyone he kills in this movie deserves what they get and then some. If they had only eaten Hannibal’s sister and nothing else then that might have put in some level of ambiguity, between being faced with a desperate survival situation and the revelation that Hannibal also partook of the soup made from Mischa’s body. However, considering everything else these guys did, it’s hard to feel bad for any of them as he tortures them all to death.

As for Hannibal himself, he’s… fine, I guess. Gaspard Ulliel had impossibly big shoes to fill and I don’t think that he quite managed to do it, although I feel like this is more down to the material rather than any failing on his part. Due to how strung together the plot feels at times, Hannibal’s character varies wildly. At times he feels like a spoiled brat (such as, funnily enough, when he’s at the orphanage in his family’s former castle, it feels like he’s just mad that it’s not his anymore), at times he feels playfully evil (think Ramsay Bolton), other times he’s just a rage-filled psycho, and sometimes he’s just vampiric. I also find it kind of funny that the whole samurai angle means that you can accuse him of being a cultural appropriator and a weeb as well.

Fuckin’ nerrrrd!

Meanwhile, Lady Murasaki is another missed opportunity. Early on it seems like she’s going to be the one who turns Hannibal into the man we know, training him in the samurai arts to kill and giving him a code of honour to guide his morals. It even seems like this was the filmmakers intent, as in the making of documentary they state that she is supposed to be Hannibal’s Aristotle, imparting her dark side upon the young man. However, this gets largely set-aside in the second half of the film as she suddenly gets cold feet about murdering the rest of the deserters when she finds out one of them has kids. Even worse, she gets turned into a goddamn damsel in distress in the final act, with Grutas constantly trying to rape her when she’s in captivity. Oh… and then there’s the weird romance between her and Hannibal which comes out of nowhere. Honestly, I had been thinking “damn, Hannibal and Murasaki are hot, pretty close in age and get along together, they’d probably make a good couple if they weren’t related through marriage”, but then I was caught completely off guard when the makeout session started. It’s not even the first time I’ve seen this movie, but I had completely forgotten that that happened.

Anyway, I can definitely tell that my thoughts on Hannibal Rising are jumbled, but that’s reflective of this movie’s messy plot. While watching it I kept thinking that it was messy, but fine, but the more that I thought about it afterwards the less I liked it. I do feel like they put in a lot more effort to try to make the movie good than I would have expected, but the execution just isn’t there. I can’t imagine anyone seriously wanting to know how Hannibal Lecter became a monster and, despite some strong talent and decent direction, Hannibal Rising just doesn’t justify the telling of this story.

4.5/10

…but the feast is not over yet. Be sure to tune in again soon for a very special bonus Retrospective finale to this series!

Please follow and like us:

Retrospective: Red Dragon (2002)

Welcome back to the Hannibal Lecter retrospective! In today’s post we’ll be looking at 2002’s prequel/remake/cash-in, Red Dragon! After the negative reception of Hannibal, would a more back-to-basics prequel be able to reel in audiences? Read on to find out…

I’m not sure if you could make a more boring poster than this. Oh look, it’s Hannibal Lecter! You all love him, right? We’ll make sure he takes up 60% of the poster!

PRODUCTION
Frustratingly enough, there’s no production history about this movie on Wikipedia or the Hannibal Lecter wiki and I couldn’t find a making of featurette with any worthwhile information so I had to get creative and look up production information from way back in 2001 and 2002. Even before the release of Hannibal, Dino and Martha de Laurentiis announced that they were going to remake Red Dragon, emphasizing that Lecter’s role in the story would be expanded and there were rumours that Ridley Scott would be back to direct it. Manhunter‘s critical reevaluation had surged by this point, with even more popularity coming its way with the premiere of CSI and there was some discontent at the idea of remaking the film less than 20 years later. However, given the more than 10 year gap between the publication of The Silence of the Lambs and Manhunter, it was obvious that no new Hannibal Lecter material was going to be produced any time soon so they needed to cash in somehow.

Hannibal‘s tepid response had soured many critics on the prospect of another outing though, with some saying that he had become a joke and moved into the realm of camp. Perhaps because of this, Ridley Scott didn’t return for Red Dragon and the project pivoted in a more serious direction, more akin to The Silence of the Lambs‘ tone. As if to confirm this direction, Ted Tally returned to write the script after skipping Hannibal due to his objections to the novel’s story. It was even rumoured that Jodie Foster may make a cameo appearance, despite the fact that Red Dragon was supposed to take place ten years prior to The Silence of the Lambs and everyone involved had noticeably aged in the interim (an obvious issue which the de Laurentiis brushed off casually). An issue which may have scuppered this idea was that MGM still held the rights to characters exclusive to The Silence of the Lambs, while Red Dragon was exclusively being distributed by Universal.

By the fall of 2001, human garbage pile Brett Ratner (of Rush Hour fame) had signed on to direct the film and a plethora of talent flocked to Tally’s script, including Edward Norton as Will Graham, Emily Watson as Reba McClane, Harvey Keitel as Jack Crawford and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Freddie Lounds. Hopkins, of course, would return as Hannibal Lecter, having secured himself an $8 million payday plus 7.5% of the film’s profits for a role that is essentially an extended cameo. That just left the role of Francis Dolarhyde in the air. While Sean Penn was in early talks to play the role, Ratner wanted Ralph Fiennes, known at the time for dramatic roles in The English Patient and The End of the Affair, as well as being the antagonist in Schindler’s List. In December of 2001, Fiennes won the role and started a hardcore workout regimen to try to get himself into shape – Dolarhyde was supposed to be an intimidating bodybuilder-type and Fiennes (who describes his body shape as “slight”) had only a month until shooting began to bulk up, especially because he is completely nude for several of his scenes.

Ladies and gentlemen, you get to see Ralph Fiennes’ great red dragon in this movie.

Also worth noting was the return of Manhunter cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who Ratner wanted so badly that he delayed production of the film in order to wait for Spinotti’s schedule to open up. While some people questioned by Spinotti would try to shoot the exact same story again, he clarified that he felt like Ted Tally’s script changed the feel of the movie; it was more faithful to the book and had a more realistic, grounded style. Faithfulness to the book also extended to the shooting, with Ratner filming on location in the book’s environs as much as possible. Production designer Kristi Zea, who had worked on The Silence of the Lambs, was also brought back to try to give Red Dragon a similar feel.

The film released on October 4, 2001 and, while it did fairly well and received mostly positive reviews, it ended up grossing only $209.1 million, a little more than half the numbers Hannibal raked in. It seemed like Lecter fatigue had well and truly set in…

PLOT SYNOPSIS
…I’m actually at a bit of a loss trying to figure out how I’m going to do this, because the overarching plot of Red Dragon is nearly identical to Manhunter. I’ve done remakes on the Retrospectives series, sure, but they always had big deviations and were distinctly different. Red Dragon doesn’t do that – it has its own distinct tone and style, but that doesn’t come across in a plot synopsis when 95% of the plot beats are the same. I was tempted to just copy + paste my plot synopsis from that film and then insert a couple sentences to show where this movie deviates, but that’s literally wasting my readers’ time. So, I’m just going to summarize the differences between this movie and Manhunter:

  • The movie opens with Hannibal Lecter at the opera and it is heavily implied that he kills the flute player for being bad at his job and then serves him to the orchestra’s board of directors. Shortly thereafter, he meets with Will Graham to discuss a case that Graham is stumped on. During their conversation, Will suddenly realizes that Hannibal Lecter fits the profile he’s been working on and Lecter ambushes him, nearly getting him. Before Lecter can land the killing blow though, Will stabs him with three arrows and then shoots him repeatedly, incapacitating the doctor and arresting him. Over the opening credits, it is revealed that Will has a psychological breakdown and retires.
  •  The film then plays out largely the same for a long time. The main differences are that Will meets Hannibal now because he thinks best when he’s able to bounce ideas off of the doctor and many of the revelations that he comes to himself in Manhunter now come after visiting Lecter for clues. In addition, Dolarhyde appears earlier in this film, meaning that his romance with Reba is given more time to breathe.
  • The next big deviation is that Dolarhyde hears voices telling him to kill Reba after they have sex. Dolarhyde tries to defy them, even threatening to commit suicide in order to save her, but he is unable to silence them. In a desperate attempt to save her, he goes to the Brooklyn Museum and eats William Blake’s original painting of The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun, hoping that this will break its control over him.
  • From there, the film plays out the same until the ending of Manhunter. Instead of taking Dolarhyde down in a shootout at his home, Dolarhyde can’t bring himself to kill Reba. Instead, he burns his house down and then stages a fake suicide, substituting co-worker Ralph Mandy’s body for his own as Reba escapes to the police. Some time later, Will Graham has returned to his family when he receives a call from Jack Crawford warning him that Dolarhyde is still on the loose. He finds Dolarhyde with Will’s son and a shootout ensues in which Will and Dolarhyde are shot several times each. Will’s wife, Molly, takes his gun and gets the final shot in on the killer, ending the reign of terror of the Red Dragon once and for all.

REVIEW
Red Dragon feels like a back-to-basics effort, trying to appease the fans after the backlash Hannibal received by making something that was safe and familiar. While the plot structure is a bit different than The Silence of the Lambs, you can see that the filmmakers were trying to harken back to it. These callbacks are met with mixed results, but the most obvious and important example of this is how Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter’s relationship has been changed in Red Dragon. In Manhunter, Will visits Lecter once in order to get back into the mindset he needs to hunt the Red Dragon. In Red Dragon, Lecter and Will are effectively a dysfunctional team, with Will bouncing ideas off of Lecter and Lecter pushing Will in the right direction. I was actually surprised at how well this change works in the opening scene, it makes the relationship between Will and Lecter more interesting, helps lay out why Will is so hesitant to return to the FBI and goes a long way to justifying why Will would keep going back to Lecter several times (and therefore give Hopkins more screentime). That said, eventually it starts to get insane that Will would keep talking to Lecter. Like, are you telling me that Will would continue to see Lecter after the bastard tried to have his family killed in retribution for Will capturing him!? I get that another family could die if you don’t catch the Red Dragon soon, but continuing to bring someone who is openly antagonistic to you into the investigation just seems counter-intuitive. There’s also the issue that this change in their relationship makes Red Dragon‘s Will Graham seem less competent than he was in Manhunter, where Graham had to figure out everything on his own. Will Graham didn’t really come across as someone with a sick mind in Manhunter, but in Red Dragon it comes across even weaker since Hannibal ends up doing all the profiling and Will just puts the pieces together.

On the shittier end of the Silence callbacks is the constant, in-your-face references to The Silence of the Lambs. I’ve mentioned this in the past, but I hate this kind of hamfisted nostalgia that exists for no other reason than for you to go “Oh hey I remember that!” The entire sequence where Will meets the imprisoned Lecter for the first time is a perfect example, it rips off the opening of The Silence of the Lambs entirely nearly shot-for-shot. Oh look, it’s Dr. Chilton, remember how much you hate him? Oh hey, it’s the same dungeon where Lecter is kept, remember that? This is, of course, undermined by the fact that everyone is noticeably a decade older than they were in the previous film and no amount of half-assed makeup and hair-dye can disguise that fact. Even worse, while I was impressed at how well they justified expanding Lecter’s role early on, the more the film drags on the more contrived, disruptive and tiring it gets. The further in the film gets, the less relevant to the plot Lecter is and his constant shoehorning in gets infuriating. Like, after it’s discovered that Hannibal sent Dolarhyde Will’s family address, we get a short scene where Chilton takes away all of Hannibals books… did we really need this scene? It literally feels like a DVD deleted scene, especially because Will visits Hannibal later and we’d get this same information anyway. And then, during one of the climactic moments of the film when Dolarhyde sneaks into the museum to eat the Blake painting, we keep cutting back to Hannibal eating a meal… why!? It literally just disrupts the tension of the scene. Probably worst of all though is that as the film is ending Dr. Chilton says that a female FBI agent is going to meet Hannibal… hey, you like The Silence of the Lambs, don’t you? You know who that female agent is! It’s things that you like, therefore you like this too! It doesn’t close this story, it doesn’t add anything to this movie, it just panders to what we’re familiar with.

As I’ve alluded to already, Hopkins’ Hannibal is just tiring in this film. It’s obvious that they’ve tried to tone him down after the backlash Hannibal received, but Hopkins is still hamming it up, it’s just more restrained than it was in the past… which, honestly, is a shame. If audiences don’t find your serial killer scary anymore, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle without a complete overhaul and Red Dragon doesn’t go far enough in that direction. Hopkins just doesn’t seem to have as much energy as he used to and the fact that the movie wants to shove him in our face constantly doesn’t do him any favours. As for Will Graham, Edward Norton is just fine. He portrays Will’s concerns as a family man more compellingly than William Peterson did in my opinion, but in basically every other way he’s not as strong of a protagonist (which is in part because, again, Lecter steals most of his thunder and makes him look less competent). Will Graham is just not a very compelling character for me in Red Dragon or Manhunter, he’s just your archetypal hero cop. Most of the supporting cast seem to phone in their roles as well. Harvey Keitel’s Jack Crawford is literally the exact performance you would expect from “Harvey Keitel as a boss cop”. Philip Seymour Hoffman is also just giving as baseline a performance as you could imagine an actor of his caliber to give, although in his case it works really well for Freddie Lounds, makes the character feel less cartoonishly sleazy and more interested in money to the point that he’ll do anything without remorse.

Luckily for Red Dragon, Ralph Fiennes’ Francis Dolarhyde and Emily Watson’s Reba McClane are easily the two best performances in the film and form its emotional core. I know that Tom Noonan’s performance in Manhunter has lots of fans for how imposing and weird he is, but in my opinion Fiennes makes for a much more interesting antagonist. For one thing, he is finally revealed only 40 minutes in instead of a full hour, meaning that we get significantly more time to develop his relationship with Reba. Furthermore, we get a much greater sense of Dolarhyde’s psychosis and how it creates conflict inside of him as his relationship with Reba deepens. The relationship itself is tragic, aided greatly by Emily Watson’s adorable performance as Reba. Her performance as Reba is super horny, with her trying to get Mr. D out of his awkward shell so she can get some of that Mr. D. The fact that she’s unaware of Dolarhyde’s psychopathy makes for a storyline that’s far more compelling than Will Graham’s A-plot and you’re left wondering if the Red Dragon can be defeated by love. That said, the very Psycho-esque voice-over from Dolarhyde’s grandmother which dominates his on-screen introduction is a very hamfisted way to get across his backstory. I understand that they had to get this across somehow in order for Will Graham’s taunting of the villain to work in the finale, but there had to have been a more elegant way to do so. Also, unlike Manhunter, we understand Dolarhyde’s psychology far better in Red Dragon but we don’t get a sense of why exactly he is killing families. In Manhunter it was because he wanted to possess what he couldn’t have because he was an incel loser. In Red Dragon he kills entire families because… he wants witnesses to his transformation into the Great Red Dragon? Because the voice tells him to? It’s weird that we get much more information about who Dolarhyde is but somehow understand why he kills less than we did in the comparatively sparse Manhunter.

I know that Red Dragon has a lot of fans, especially compared to Hannibal, but I personally just find it uninteresting. Whereas Hannibal went off in its own direction and wasn’t trying to be safe, Red Dragon seems terrified to try anything new. It takes a solid, well-liked story and then filters it through the lens of The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en, making for a very indistinct, also-ran kind of film. Manhunter is, overall, a more interesting film, but I do really like how Dolarhyde and Reba are handled by this film and prefer the ending of Red Dragon, so it’s a bit of a wash for me. The overall storyline is very solid and so it’s hard to really screw that up (even if you’re Brett Ratner; I find it hilarious that his Wikipedia page even goes out of its way to say that his movies suck), so Red Dragon is enjoyable even if it feels like it could have been conveyed better.

6/10

Be sure to tune in again soon as we take a look at the next entry in the franchise, Hannibal Rising!

Please follow and like us:

Retrospective: Hannibal (2001)

Welcome back to the Hannibal Lecter retrospective! In today’s post we’ll be looking at the follow-up to the iconic The Silence of the Lambs, 2001’s Hannibal! As you may be aware, this film has a… reputation to say the least. Could it live up to its predecessor’s legacy? Read on to find out…

I goddamn love this poster. I remember as a kid seeing this in a movie theatre and having my imagination filled with possibilities about what this movie could be about. It’s so grimy and creepy, leaving much to the viewer to intuit for themselves and hinting that this is going to be a darker film than its predecessor. It’s also nice that it does its own thing while hinting at The Silence of the Lambs‘ iconic poster design.

PRODUCTION
Even before The Silence of the Lambs was published, Thomas Harris began conceptualizing a sequel where Hannibal was loose in the streets of Europe. However, after the surprise success of the film adaptation, demand for a sequel hit a fever pitch, especially from the owner of the film rights to Hannibal Lecter, producer Dino de Laurentiis. De Laurentiis regretted lending the rights to the character for free for The Silence of the Lambs, but planned on capitalizing on the newfound popularity of the character. He wasn’t the only one looking to make bank though and there was soon a mad scramble to get in on the follow-up (better strap in because the production of this movie was fascinating and a good example of why I include production history in these retrospectives in the first place).

First of all Orion Pictures, which had produced The Silence of the Lambs, had been having financial issues for years and filed for bankruptcy in 1991, even before they could celebrate The Silence of the Lambs‘ history-making Oscar run. This would ultimately result in the studio becoming a subsidiary of MGM, selling all their rights to them in the process, including the rights to the character of Clarice Starling. However, Universal studios chairman Tom Pollock tried to convince de Laurentiis to make the sequel with them instead, with de Laurentiis alleging that they were strong arming him by putting other pictures they were partnered on on the line. This would ultimately be taken to court and when it was settled it was agreed that Universal and MGM would co-distribute the forthcoming sequel.

Of course, this all still up in the air because, despite coming to an agreement, Harris was still working on his follow-up and it would be years before it would be complete. This was back during an era when studios would actually wait for a novelist to write a sequel instead of just forging ahead on their own, as demonstrated with The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Director Jonathan Demme, Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster and screenwriter Ted Tally were all interested in returning for a sequel, with it being rumoured that Hopkins and Foster would each receive a cool $15 million to reprise their Oscar-winning roles. Finally, in 1999, the next novel in the series was published, titled Hannibal. The novel was met with mixed reception, with the main complaints revolving around its twisted violence and the ending, which sees Clarice Starling being drugged by Hannibal, engaging in cannibalism and then running off together in love.

When the details of the story came out, key members of the original film began to drop out. Ted Tally was disappointed with the novel and declined to write the script. Jonathan Demme passed on directing, citing his distaste over how violent it was and his disappointment about how Clarice Starling was handled (reportedly, upon hearing this, de Laurentiis said “when the Pope-a die, we create a new Pope-a. Good luck to Jonathan Demme. Good-bye.”). Jodie Foster’s refusal to return as Clarice Starling was particularly contentious, with her putting out several excuses talking around why she wasn’t reprising her role in the film, from concerns about the story quality, to Demme not returning, to financial concerns (according to de Laurentiis, Foster’s agent demanded $20 million and 15% of the gross, which he says caused him to reject her outright). Based on what was said at the time and since, I’d be willing to bet that the main issue was that Foster didn’t like how Clarice Starling was being portrayed in Hannibal, with a secondary concern being and that de Laurentiis was going to lowball her pay. Luckily for de Laurentiis, Hopkins was viewed as the crux of the entire project and agreed to return as Hannibal Lecter, otherwise the film probably would have never been made.

With nearly all of the key figures involved in The Silence of the Lambs gone, work began on hiring the new production team. Ridley Scott was approached during the filming of Gladiator and agreed to take over the director’s chair. This was exciting news since, while he has gained a reputation for being inconsistent in the last decade, his filmography consisted of landmark film after landmark film at the time (and later in the same year of Hannibal‘s release he would put out one of the greatest and most influential modern war movies, Black Hawk Down). The script was written by David Mamet (who wrote, among other things, The Untouchables and Wag the Dog), but this draft was then rewritten by Schindler’s List screenwriter Steven Zaillian after a grueling brainstorming session between Zaillian and Scott to change the ending of the novel for the adaptation.

As for who would play Clarice Starling, several high-profile actresses were considered, including Cate Blanchett, Angelina Jolie, Gillian Anderson (remember this one, it’ll be important in the future), Hilary Swank, Ashley Judd and Helen Hunt. However, Hopkins suggested to de Laurentiis that Retrospectives veteran Julianne Moore be considered for the role, as he had worked with her a few years earlier and thought that she would be great for the role. While I can’t confirm whether Hopkins’ endorsement ultimately won her the part (Ridley Scott also said that she was his top choice), Julianne Moore was chosen to play Clarice… and I’ll bet that de Laurentiis was happy about this because she was paid a reported $3 million!!! This legitimately infuriates me. Like I said earlier, Foster and Hopkins were both expected to collect around $15 million for their roles in this movie (I couldn’t find an exact number, but it is believed that Hopkins was paid more than $10 million for this film), which reflects the fact that both characters and their performers are crucial to the film’s success. The fact that de Laurentiis was just so flippant about casting Foster aside is more blindingly obvious proof of the Hollywood wage gap. Won’t take a pay cut, little lady? That’s all right, we’ll replace you with one of the other actresses starving for a meaty female role. Also consider the fact that Foster was considered expendable whereas Hopkins exiting the project would tank the entire production. I do get that Hopkins’ Lecter was the main draw for audiences and so I wouldn’t say that he doesn’t deserve a decent payday, but Clarice Starling was the real main character of The Silence of the Lambs and the beating, emotional heart which made it all work and that should be reflected. Also consider that Julianne Moore herself is getting lowballed at $3 million – she was coming off of such box office and critical successes as The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Boogie Nights (which she would get a Best Supporting Actress nomination for), The Big Lebowski and Magnolia, and you’re telling me that she was worth less than a third of what her male co-star was getting (and that’s assuming that conservative $10 million number is correct)? Bull-fucking-shit.

For the other major roles, motherfuckin’ Christopher Reeve was offered the role of Mason Verger, but turned the role down when he actually read the script and realized that they were asking him to play a psychotic, disfigured, wheelchair-bound pedophile. The role went to their next choice, Gary Oldman. Ray Liotta was cast to play Paul Krendler, a Justice Department official who had previously appeared in The Silence of the Lambs played by Ron Vawter, but Vawter had died in 1994 and so had to be recast. Giancarlo Giannini (probably most famous internationally for playing Mathis in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace) was cast as the shady detective Rinaldo Pazzi. Also noteworthy is the fact that the only other actor to reprise his role from The Silence of the Lambs was Frankie Faison as the asylum orderly Barney. Faison had also played a different, minor role in Manhunter, making him the only actor to stay a consistent part of the franchise thus far.

Filming lasted 16 weeks, with the production going on location in Florence and various locales across the US, which is probably part of the reason that the budget ended up going over $80 million, which is high for a hard R-rated film of this nature. Luckily for all the film’s financial backers, Hannibal opened February 9, 2001 to a $58 million opening weekend, the third largest debut ever at the time, and would gross $351.6 million. However, the critical and audience reception of the film was lukewarm and many people felt that it didn’t live up to the legacy of The Silence of the Lambs.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
Ten years after the events of the previous film, Hannibal Lecter is still on the loose and is one of the FBI’s most wanted. Clarice Starling is leading a drug bust which goes awry when one of her agents disobeys an order to stand down. As a result, several people are killed and a PR nightmare ensues, with Starling taking the blame. After pulling some strings with corrupt Justice Department official Paul Krendler, Mason Verger (a grievously wounded survivor of Lecter) has Clarice Starling assigned to hunt down Lecter, believing that Lecter has a special relationship with her and that her involvement will draw him out into the open. This seems to work because shortly after being reassigned, Clarice finds a letter from Hannibal. After performing an analysis on the letter, it is discovered that it contains trace elements of a skin cream that is only legally available in certain parts of the world. Clarice requests police departments around the world to send security footage from potential shops, including in Florence. The chief inspector Rinaldo Pazzi, who has been investigating the disappearance of a library curator, recognizes someone in one of these security tapes, a man who he had interviewed about the disappearance named Dr. Fell. Putting two and two together, Pazzi investigates the FBI’s database and realizes that Dr. Fell is actually Hannibal Lecter. He soon discovers that someone has put a $3 million bounty on Lecter’s head and tries to collect it. He is told that he will require a fingerprint to positively ID Lecter before he can be apprehended. Pazzi recruits a pickpocket to get the fingerprint and, while he is successful, the pickpocket is stabbed to death by Lecter in the process. Despite this incident, Pazzi ignores ominous warnings from Lecter and a plea from Clarice to stand down and sends the fingerprint off for confirmation. He discovers that the bounty has been issued by Mason Verger and, despite being told that his own men will apprehend Lecter, Pazzi chooses to joins Verger’s crew to apprehend the serial killer. However, when he attempts to draw Lecter out into an ambush, Lecter ties up the inspector and then disembowels and hangs him from the balcony of the Palazzo Vecchio in retribution. He then murders one of Verger’s men in retribution before slipping away.

Frustrated that Hannibal slipped from his grasp, Verger bribes Paul Krendler again to put Clarice Starling in harm’s way. Verger fabricates a letter which makes it seem like Starling is aiding Lecter’s continued freedom, causing her to be suspended from the FBI. Hearing about this, Lecter calls Clarice and lures her out for a confrontation. However, Verger’s men are following her and apprehend Lecter. Clarice witnesses this and tries to get the police to inspect Verger’s estate, but they aren’t able to find anything incriminating. Clarice then decides to go on her own, finding Lecter tied up and about to be fed to Verger’s pack of carnivorous pigs. Clarice frees Lecter and kills two thugs but is shot and wounded herself. Lecter rescues her as the pigs break in and devour two of the guards after ignoring Hannibal. Lecter then convinces Verger’s physician to drop his boss into the pig pen, saying that he can blame Lecter. The physician complies and Verger is eaten alive.

Clarice wakes up sometime later at Krendler’s lakehouse, heavily drugged. She calls the police and then makes her way downstairs, where she finds Lecter preparing dinner with an even more heavily-drugged Krendler. Lecter reveals that he has sawed open the top of Krendler’s head, which he removes to expose his brain. Lecter cuts out a piece of the still-living Krendler’s brain and then sautés it and feeds it to him. Clarice then tries to stab Lecter, but he locks her ponytail in a fridge door and holds her down as she handcuffs him to her. With the police almost upon them, Lecter takes a cleaver and threatens to cut her hand off if she doesn’t release him. When she refuses to budge, he brings the cleaver down and she screams. Shortly thereafter the police find Clarice and it is implied that Hannibal chose to cut his own hand off to escape. He is seen in the ending on a plane, arm bandaged, sharing cooked brains with a child curious about his meal.

REVIEW
I think that the thing that I appreciate the most about Hannibal is that it aims to be very different from its predecessor. Too often sequels, especially sequels to a pop culture icon, end up just repeating the same bits, returning to a formula and become self-referential. The Hannibal Lecter franchise was ripe for this – hell, The Silence of the Lambs itself nearly falls into this trap since it could basically be boiled down to “Hannibal Lecter helps solve another murder case”. Hannibal is a different sort of beast though, by necessity. With Lecter on the run and ten years having passed, it would be very difficult to just do the same thing again without it feeling contrived. As a result, we get to see all sorts of fresh ideas play out. We get to spend the film’s entire second act in beautiful Florence, a breath of fresh air compared to all the comparatively boring American vistas that make up this series’ settings. We get to see a psychopath actively wanting revenge on Lecter, putting our main characters directly in danger. We get to see Lecter living out among the people and outsmarting everyone who tries to catch him. There’s some give-and-take to this approach, as the film is certainly slower and the tension is less consistent, but I do appreciate the attempt to inject fresh ideas into the formula.

There is so much to love in Hannibal. First off, the acting is great across the board. While Lecter doesn’t have quite the same spark that he did in The Silence of the Lambs, in part because he spends most of his screen time separated from Clarice, Hopkins seems to be having the time of his life and he’s always enjoyable to watch. As for Julianne Moore, she brings her own take of Clarice Starling to the film, one that is more experienced and disillusioned with the bureaucracy of the FBI. She’s much more defiant, she doesn’t take any shit from people who are still talking down to her. I’d have to say that Jodie Foster’s take was far more compelling, but Moore brings her own spin on the material that she’s given. The two best performances in the film have to be Gary Oldman’s Mason Verger and Giancarlo Giannini’s Rinaldo Pazzi. Starting with Verger, Oldman plays him like a rich, polite old man, despite the fact that his character is a self-professed pedophile who’s obsessed with the idea of torturing and killing the man who ruined his life. He’s so sinister and darkly funny at times, making for a more than worthy opponent to Lecter. I also love his obsession with feeding Hannibal alive to a pack of man-eating pigs, since that means that we get one of the most brutal and amazing set-pieces in the film which culminates in Verger’s own ironic death by pigs (a change which was made for the movie, thank God). I have to give a particular shout-out here to makeup artist Greg Cannom, whose prosthetics work makes Gary Oldman unrecognizable and so disturbing to look at. As for Rinaldo Pazzi, his story plays out over the course of the film’s second act and is easily the most compelling part of the film. It’s fascinating to watch Pazzi go from a disinterested cop to a man just barely holding onto his composure, blinded by greed to the obvious dangers he’s walking into.

Ridley Scott’s direction is also fairly solid throughout the film. I feel like Jonathan Demme’s direction favoured the characters more, but Scott brings his own take to the material. As one would expect of him, the production design is spot on (particularly aided by the fact that much of it was shot on location in some gorgeous locales) and the visuals are all top-notch. There are some moments when I feel like he has trouble keeping the audience oriented though, particularly during the chaotic opening shootout sequence (which looks cool at least, there’s so much blown up debris and sparks from ricocheting bullets) and when Hannibal draws out Clarice into a crowded station. I’m not sure if these issues come down to direction or editing, but they are two notable examples of when Hannibal‘s direction stumbles.

With all that said, let’s get to Hannibal‘s crippling flaw – the script. Damn near every aspect of this movie is firing on all cylinders and if not for the inconsistent quality of the script this could have been a very worthy successor to The Silence of the Lambs. We’ll start with what I think is the most damning flaw in the film, the treatment of Clarice Starling. Clarice is the film’s focus in the first thirty minutes: she’s devastated for having to shoot a woman holding a baby during the botched drug bust, she gets suspended unjustly, is reassigned to Lecter’s case and then starts following clues. Cool, that means she should find a clue to lead her to Lecter in time for the second act, right? Nooooope… for whatever reason, Clarice doesn’t do anything in the second act – aside from a few short and unimportant scenes, she effectively disappears for a whole fifty freaking minutes. The only things of note that she does in the third act is fail to find Hannibal when he’s right behind her, go rogue to rescue him and then basically lets Hannibal get away again. She’s a far-cry from the Clarice of The Silence of the Lambs who is the film’s emotional core and the one who’s driving the plot forward, here Clarice takes a back seat right as the plot is getting underway and gets pushed around where the story demands she go. The film also brings back hints of the sexism that Clarice faced back in The Silence of the Lambs, but it’s done to much lesser effect. Instead of being objectified and belittled by men in all areas of her life, the only person being sexist to her is her boss, Paul Krendler, who’s just a total sleaze. There’s a shot of him staring up Clarice’s legs and at one point he gets caught staring at a drawing of Clarice’s breasts that Hannibal sent her. We later discover that he’s doing this because Clarice wouldn’t have an affair with him, so he’s been making her career hell because he’s an abusive piece of shit. It’s nice at least that they acknowledge that this sort of power abuse happens, but it makes it feel like this is just the sort of thing that bad people like Krendler do instead of being a systemic issue that women routinely have to deal with. It’s such a shame that Clarice was done so dirty by this film, even with the ending being changed to be less controversial. With some more deviation from the book to make her a more active character she could have been at least on-par with Hannibal Lecter once again.

While I have complained that the second act totally shafts Clarice Starling, effectively excising her from the story for fifty minutes, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that this was by far the best part of the movie. After a half hour of build-up we finally get to see Hannibal on the loose in Florence, working his way up into a curator’s position at a museum. Watching Pazzi come to the slow realization that Dr. Fell is Hannibal Lector and then trying to collect the bounty on him is fascinating. The film is at its absolute most tense and exciting during these sequences, since we know that Pazzi is no match for Lecter and we’re left waiting on the edge of our seat to see what the good doctor is going to do to this would-be hunter. And, like any good story, just when you think that Lecter is going to pounce, he relents until the tension has hit an absolute peak. This all culminates in the brilliant “bowels in or bowels out?” sequence, one of the most memorable in the entire film. And then… it just kind of ends on an inconsequential note. Hannibal escapes his pursuers and nothing comes of it. It’s ridiculous how much the air gets sucked out of the room once the second act is over. The only consequence is that Verger sees video footage of the killing where Hannibal waves, which he takes to mean that he’s waving to Clarice Starling… but, like, Verger already knew that she was Hannibal’s weak point from the very start of the movie. Hell, he already put pressure on her to lure Hannibal out once, having to do it again after this is just redundant and doesn’t flow with the story as it has been told up to this point. And to make matters worse, having Hannibal escape was pointless too because he gets captured like ten minutes later anyway. There were only really two ways to move the movie out of Florence and back to the States in a way that makes sense and doesn’t render the entire second act pointless: either have Hannibal get captured in Florence by Verger’s men after killing Pazzi, or have Hannibal realize that Verger’s onto him and that his only course of action now is to actively take on Verger (for example, think of how The Bourne Ultimatum brings Jason Bourne back to the US).

While I have my issues with how the first two acts play out, I still quite like the movie up to this point. However, the third act is a total mess. First of all, the sequence where Hannibal phones Clarice and lures her out to union station while he stalks her (complete with him brushing her hair when he goes past on a carousel) is just so silly and out of place. You’re telling me that Clarice isn’t hearing the musicians playing just beside Hannibal and trying to use that to pinpoint his location? She’s not hearing him speaking right behind her as he touches her hair? Then Hannibal gets captured by Verger’s men – I had thought that he was using Clarice to lure them out so he could pick them off one-by-one, but no, it seems like he was just a dumb-dumb all of a sudden so they could get ahold of him. Clarice just happens to see this too, so she calls the police who investigate Verger’s mansion and then leave again. You’re telling me that they’re just going to take his word that there’s no captured serial killers on my property, no sir-ee-bob!? They don’t leave any sort of surveillance, just in case he’s having him held elsewhere? Apparently not, because how else are we going to make Clarice decide to go rogue and break into the mansion to save Hannibal’s ass? I kinda love this sequence because it does result in several people being eaten to death by pigs, but feels very rushed in order to resolve the Verger plot and then get us into the finale… and hoo boy, what a finale it is. I’ve never been able to take the ending sequence of this movie seriously, which sees a drugged up Clarice watching as Hannibal peels Krendler’s skull open and feeds him parts of his own brain. It’s just too funny to be horrifying, in part because of Ray Liotta’s drugged-up acting and in part because the whole premise of feeding someone his own brain is just pure schlock comedy. Then, after that’s done, we get Clarice and Hannibal’s final confrontation, which ends with him chopping his own hand off to escape rather than harming Clarice. It’s an interesting moment, but it leaves us with no resolution for Clarice’s storyline. It’s definitely better than the book’s ending, but it’s still unsatisfying. This third act (which plays out over the last thirty minutes of the film) really sours me on Hannibal. After the first two acts move at a slow and measured pace, it suddenly feels like they had to cram too much story into the last thirty minutes and everything suffers as a result.

On a related note, this film could have been improved with some better editing and writing. The first couple acts are slow, but they could have been tightened up with more judicial cuts and better scripting. Like, did we really need two sequences where Verger realizes that Clarice is Hannibal’s weakness, where men are sent to capture Hannibal, and where Clarice gets dicked over by Krendler unjustly? There’s also moments that I don’t even understand why they made it into the film. There’s a sequence where we see Lecter scoping out Krendler’s apartment and then breaking into a hospital to steal medical tools so that he can later cut open Krendler’s head. Did we really need to spend several minutes belabouring this detail? I mean… in a post-Cinema Sins world some dickhead would probably nitpick “Oh where did Hannibal get these tools? Why did he know where Krendler lived?”, but we don’t really need to be shown this. Despite being roughly the same run time as The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal feels much flabbier and could have done with another pass on the script to tighten things up. Like I’ve said, there are elements about this movie and the story that I really like (such as the fantastic opening title sequence), but they’re bogged down with too much excess.

I’m well aware than Hannibal has a bad reputation, that it’s considered responsible for killing a lot of peoples’ interest in Hannibal Lecter with its pivot into campy, dark humour. However, I’ve always had a soft spot for it in my heart, just due to how much it deviates from the established formula and how sick and twisted it can be. That said, upon rewatching it my enthusiasm for the film has definitely dulled somewhat. There are still plenty of parts that I enjoy, but I have a hard time looking past how unsatisfying the last act is and how badly they treated Clarice Starling. Still, there’s enough here that I like that I can’t call it a complete disaster but I am disappointed that Hannibal didn’t live up to the potential it had.

6.5/10

Please follow and like us:

Retrospective: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Welcome back to the Hannibal Lecter retrospective! In today’s post we’ll be going over The Big One, The Silence of the Lambs. I mentioned in my review of Manhunter that that film felt dated, in part because it came before this landmark follow-up. Does Silence hold up better? Read on to find out…

I love this poster. It doesn’t give you any information about the film itself, it only gives you the title, a chilling mood and some symbolism to go off of, leaving your imagination to fill in the blanks. Also, if you look closely enough, you can see that the Death’s-head Moth’s skull has been replaced with a photograph of naked women arranged in the shape of a skull by Salvador Dali, further hinting at the film’s themes.

PRODUCTION
Sometime after completing Red Dragon, Thomas Harris began work on his next novel, which he decided would revolve around a strong female character. While not initially conceived as a sequel to Red Dragon, Harris’ female lead was almost instantly drawn to Lecter and the story developed out from there. The Silence of the Lambs was published in 1988 and was another success for Harris, winning him accolades and once again drawing the attentions of Hollywood. In 1987, prior to the novel’s release, prestige production company Orion Pictures (which were coming off a string of Best Picture winners, Dances With Wolves, Platoon and Amadeus) and Gene Hackman secured the rights to adapt the novel, despite Harris’ disappointment with Manhunter. However, they also had to negotiate to Dino De Laurentiis to get the rights to use the name “Hannibal Lector”, since he still owned these (which makes the fact that they spelled it “Lecktor” in Manhunter even more baffling). Disillusioned due to Manhunter‘s failures, De Laurentiis lent the rights to Orion and Hackman for free. Perhaps due to Manhunter‘s underwhelming reception, The Silence of the Lambs would be produced as its own stand-alone film, with references to the events of Manhunter/Red Dragon which were present in the book being omitted. Hackman was initially set to direct and star in the film, but halfway through the first draft of the script he dropped out and the studio had to step in to finance the film and find a replacement director. The job went to Roger Corman alum Jonathan Demme.

Jodie Foster had expressed great interest in the role of Clarice Starling, but was initially turned down by Demme, who approached Michelle Pfeiffer, Meg Ryan and Laura Dern instead. However, when these choices didn’t work out, Foster secured the role. For Hannibal Lecter, Demme originally considered casting Sean Connery, but he turned the role down (a pattern for Connery, who might be the most comically stupid actor in Hollywood for turning down projects he doesn’t understand). The role instead went to Anthony Hopkins. The role of Buffalo Bill went to Ted Levine, who was largely unknown at the time, having played mostly bit parts up until that point.

The FBI cooperated with the production, providing consultation with the actors and even allowing the crew to film at the FBI Academy in Quantico. Hopkins drew inspiration for his iteration of Lecter from studying criminal case files, visiting prisons and presiding during several court cases. Meanwhile, Ted Levine focused on Buffalo Bill’s queerness, visiting gay and trans bars and taking as much inspiration from David Bowie as he did from murderers like Ed Gein and Gary Heidnik. This led to the book and the film receiving criticism and protests from feminist, gay and trans activists over the portrayal of Buffalo Bill, who was viewed as demonizing gay and trans people, a reputation which still sours appraisal of the film to this day. In spite of the controversy, The Silence of the Lambs proved to be wildly successful, grossing $272.2 million on a $19 million budget and winning a number of accolades including sweeping the “big five” at the Oscars (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Adapted Screenplay), only the third film in history to do so.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
Clarice Starling, a student at the FBI Academy, is recruited by Jack Crawford to interview the imprisoned Hannibal Lecter – outwardly, to try to profile his behaviour, but secretly because they suspect that he may have insight on a serial killer who has been kidnapping, murdering and skinning women. Hannibal finds Clarice intriguing, but tires of her questioning. However, when a fellow prisoner flings his semen at Clarice, Hannibal decides that he will give her a lead. This leads Clarice to an abandoned storage locker, where she discovers the severed head of one of Hannibal’s former patients, a man named Benjamin Raspail. Lecter reveals that he believes that Buffalo Bill murdered Raspail many years prior and that he will help to try to catch Bill if they will move him to a more accommodating institution.

While this is occurring, Bill kidnaps his latest victim, who happens to be the daughter of the state senator. Knowing that time is short for this latest victim, Jack and Clarice craft a deal with Lecter for his cooperation, with him demanding insight into Clarice’s childhood before he will accept the deal. However, it is soon discovered that Clarice betrayed his trust as the deal was entirely falsified. A new deal is made between the institution’s overseer Dr. Chilton and Lecter, which is agreed upon with the senator herself. However, Clarice realizes that the information Lecter gave her was misleading and confronts him at a holding cell in a Tennessee courthouse for more information. After providing more details about her childhood, including a traumatic event where she tried to save the spring lambs from being slaughtered, Lecter tells Clarice that everything she needs to know to solve the case is included in the case files. Clarice is escorted out of the building and soon after Lecter escapes by killing his two guards and then cutting one of their faces off, disguising himself as an injured officer as the paramedics rush him out of the crime scene.

Meanwhile, Clarice studies the case file in greater detail and realizes that Buffalo Bill must have known his first victim, which gives her a new lead to start from. After tracking down this lead she realizes that Bill is skinning the women because he’s using them to make a woman suit. Clarice begins tracking down acquaintances of the first victim and comes across Buffalo Bill himself. Quickly realizing that he is the killer, she confronts him and discovers that the senator’s daughter is still alive, trapped inside a well. After a tense chase, Clarice shoots Bill to death and the case is closed. Later, at her FBI graduation ceremony, Clarice receives a phone call from Lecter to congratulate her before he tells her that he’s “having an old friend for dinner” and hangs up, stalking an anxious Dr. Chilton into a crowd…

REVIEW
I’ve grown a lot in the decade since I last saw The Silence of the Lambs and watching it again has given me a newfound appreciation for just how overtly feminist this movie is. (What’s that, we’re talking about feminism on IC2S? Shocker!) Like, if this film came out today, completely unaltered, you’d have chuds whining about how it’s unrealistic, agenda-pushing propaganda. Conversely, it feels very timely for its release year of 1991, when films were still grappling with the idea of women having careers. The film isn’t even subtle about it, within the first couple minutes we get a shot of Clarice walking into an elevator at the FBI Academy surrounded by men who are all nearly twice her height and size, visually symbolizing her upward struggle. We also see several instances of Clarice being hit on and objectified by the men around her when she’s just trying to do her job – when she meets Dr. Chilton, when she tries to do research on the Death’s-head moth and when she is doing her morning jog and all the male recruits check her out after she passes. Oh, and that’s not even mentioning the fucking sexual assault prisoner Miggs subjects her to and the sexually explicit taunts Hannibal directs her way. Clarice always brushes these encounters off, but it’s obvious that they all make her uncomfortable at the very least and undermine her attempts to be taken seriously as an FBI agent on the basis of nothing more than her sex. This theme is woven throughout the film’s narrative, as Buffalo Bill is also exclusively preying on women, making their lives even more difficult and dangerous. Similarly, it is later discovered that Bill is, himself, trying to become a woman while Clarice is trying to shed the prejudice that comes with her gender (I’ve seen some critics say that she wishes she was a man, but I personally don’t get this sense, she just wishes that men wouldn’t objectify her). Clarice even delivers a haunting line near the middle of the film which is straight-up a declaration of the film’s message: “If he sees her as a person and not just an object, it’s harder to tear her up.” Clarice knows the feeling of being objectified by men constantly, but she is determined to achieve her goals in spite of these prejudices and prove that everyone is underestimating her capabilities. All the problems I had with Will Graham in Manhunter? They don’t apply here. Clarice is a fantastic emotional core to the film and she’s played wonderfully by Jodie Foster, who plays up Clarice’s strength, determination and desperation flawlessly. My only slight criticism about her character would be that Clarice’s goals stem, in part, from the well-worn female protagonist daddy issues trope (her father was her hero, a cop who died when she was young). This isn’t a major issue, but it might have been nice if the character’s motivation was just a tad bit more original.

If Clarice is the emotional core of the film, then Hannibal Lecter is the spellbinding agent of chaos, the true antagonist of the piece. Hopkins’ portrayal is truly electrifying. Whereas Cox played the character as a smug dickhead, Hopkins instead aims instead for a more theatrical portrayal, an irresistible mixture of charming and dangerous. His introduction has to be one of the greatest in film history, with Jack Crawford and Dr. Chilton both hyping up just how overwhelmingly dangerous he is to mind and body alike for nearly five straight minutes before we get to meet him. Lecter himself seems to follow a pattern with his playthings – he starts out charming, asking questions politely, reeling the subject in to make them interested. Then he says something shocking or repulsive just to see how the person reacts. In Clarice’s case, she stands her ground and even goes along with Lecter, in the senator’s case she becomes insulted and leaves him. However, Lecter then reels them back in again with a promise of something that they want. In Clarice’s case, he dangles the promise of helping her solve the Buffalo Bill case, making her career and some clues on Bill’s whereabouts, while in the senator’s case he provides details on Bill’s appearance. It’s a pattern that always sees Lecter in control, even though he’s in shackles for nearly the entire film. In spite of this, he does display moments of sympathy and honour, such as when he first agrees to help Clarice after she is sexually assaulted by Miggs. In retaliation, Hannibal convinces Miggs to kill himself in retribution, even though it results in him having all of his privileges stripped away. One particular detail that I found fascinating is Hannibal’s eyes. He spends the entire movie staring like a predator, fixated intently on the things that he wants. Initially we only really see him with Clarice, so it’s not particularly notable when he spends all their time together staring at her. However, later when he is being transported to meet with the senator, he spends most of his time staring forward, blankly… that is, until he sees something he wants, a pen which he plans to use in an escape attempt. Whenever this pen is on screen, Hannibal’s eyes dart to it and he stares with intensity at it. It’s a detail which makes his interactions with Clarice even more interesting. Like the other men in the film, Hannibal is fixated on Clarice’s body but there seems to be more to it than just simple lust. Clarice and Hannibal play off each other with fantastic chemistry, making for two phenomenal leads to the film.

Rounding out the main cast is Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill and… well, this is where the only substantial complaints I have about this film lie. Before I get into this analysis though, I just want to make it clear that I’m going to refer to Buffalo Bill as a man here, mainly because the film tells us that he isn’t transgender and that it seems to be the actual intent that he is not (as opposed to, say, Ace Ventura which portrays a trans woman but then acts like she’s a man). I definitely feel like there are issues here, but based on what we’re given I feel like this is the reading we’re supposed to come away with. Anyway, with that said, the portrayal of Buffalo Bill is fucking problematic. On its surface, the idea of having a character kill women because he wants to become one is ripe for reading as transphobic. I’m actually kind of impressed that Thomas Harris was aware of this and tried to go to great pains to avoid this interpretation, working a couple scenes into the novel of characters explaining that Bill is not a trans person, but rather has so much self loathing that he wants to become someone as far away from himself as possible. The film struggles even more with this, only including one scene where Hannibal states that Buffalo Bill isn’t really a trans person, which isn’t exactly the most reliable source. That said, considering that Harris was aware that this was an issue, it prompts two questions:

  1. If you know that this character is going to read as problematic, why are you bothering to include the problematic parts?
  2. If you’re insisting on going forward with it, why not get consultations from trans figures to ensure that you make it as respectful as possible?

Harris may have at tried to cut off any potential criticisms, but it didn’t seem to work because the popular perception became that Buffalo Bill was a villainous trans character and the explanations were forgotten. It also doesn’t help that the film tries to leave Bill’s queerness ambiguous, but Ted Levine plays the character so stereotypically gay (he’s got a goddamn bichon frise named Precious for Christsakes) and we’re clearly meant to find his “otherness” to be a monstrous aspect of the character. Levine is quoted saying “I think [Bill] at one point thought that he might be a rock star in the mode of a David Bowie, those guys who were really masculine but feminine at the same time”, denoting that we’re meant to be disturbed by Bill’s androgyny. The infamous “tucking” scene is also indicative of this (and, notably, was improvised by Levine), only really existing to make us think how strange and fucked up queer people are. I feel like the film might have gotten away with its explanations that Bill wasn’t really trans and avoided backlash from the LGBTQ community, but the tucking scene and the unambiguous queer coding push it way too far, especially at a time when positive queer representation was in a noticeable dearth. Buffalo Bill’s entrance a half hour into the film is truly chilling, with him preying on his victim’s sympathy to lure her into his clutches, it’s just too bad that he turns into an offensive stereotype from there. Luckily, his screentime is fairly limited, but it’s unfortunate that his portrayal is a permanent black stain on this film.

While the characters are the beating heart of The Silence of the Lambs, they’re greatly aided by a top-tier screenplay and direction. The films story is tense, exciting and lean, giving the audience the clues to solve the mystery on their own while not wasting a moment of screentime. Aiding this is Jonathan Demme’s expert direction, which allows the actors to get the most out of their performances. I noticed that Demme frames his characters in closeups and extreme closeups constantly throughout the film, giving us more insight into the characters’ unspoken emotions during all of the tense exchanges of dialogue. It’s a simple technique, but it’s utilized masterfully throughout the film to convey more than is said and helps to get around some of the issues translating a book to screen. There are all sorts of great moments utilizing these closeups, most notably during any scene with Hannibal and Clarice, but I was particularly impressed during the scene where Clarice inspects the body of one of Bill’s victims. The body itself isn’t shown, except in bits and pieces, and the focus is instead on Clarice’s face as she records the details. A lesser film may have revelled in the chance for some squeamish gore, but The Silence of the Lambs places the focus squarely on Clarice and all of the emotions that she clearly has just roiling beyond the surface, since this is what’s truly important in this scene. Demme also pulls out some truly thrilling sequences, such as Lecter’s grand escape (I can still remember the first time I saw it, piecing together what happened as I watched and being amazed when the big reveal was made) and the voyeuristic and claustrophobic night vision sequence at the end of the film. All-in-all, it’s little wonder that the film swept the Oscars, because nearly everything here is top notch.

I’ve always regarded The Silence of the Lambs highly, but I was curious to see how it would hold up nearly a decade after I last saw it and with a more critical eye directed towards the film’s representation issues. While I have to say that I’m disappointed by the problematic LGBTQ representation, if you’re able to look past this issue, everything else about the film is engrossing. I was also particularly impressed by the film’s feminist themes, which I hadn’t appreciated in previous viewings of the film. There really isn’t much more to say, The Silence of the Lambs is still a great, if flawed, film and definitely my favourite movie in the franchise.

9/10

Be sure to tune in again soon when we look at the next entry in the franchise, Hannibal!

Please follow and like us:

Retrospective: Manhunter (1986)

If you follow me on Twitter then you may have heard recently that I have been devouring the three seasons of Hannibal which had come to Netflix back in June. I had watched the first season back when it first aired but hadn’t had a chance to see the other two so I was more than happy to take any excuse to get caught up. However, when the last episode ended I still hadn’t gotten my fill – I needed more before my hunger would be sated. So I decided that I wanted to give Manhunter a shot, a film which I had a DVD copy of for nearly a decade but which had never actually gotten around to seeing. From there, although it wasn’t my original intention, the idea of doing a retrospective on the Hannibal Lector films emerged.

Before we get into the meat of this series though, I do want to note that I haven’t blogged in quite a while and explain why. In simple terms:

  1. I have a busy work and family life and so what free time I have I have been dedicating to other pursuits, such as other writing projects which I hope to turn into novels one day.
  2. On a related note, this blog really doesn’t bring in a lot of traffic. I’m excited if I get, like, a couple hundred views on a post within a month. The most popular posts have views in the hundreds or thousands, but those are usually for obscure movie reviews that don’t have a lot of traffic elsewhere or show up high on Google Image searches. Newer posts don’t tend to do all that well, which is discouraging and so putting effort into other projects seems like a better use of time.
  3. I like writing these retrospective series (and things like them), but they take a lot of time to write and research for something I don’t get any sort of return on other than my own satisfaction. Like, for the slasher showdown back in October, I spent a solid month of evenings watching the entire Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises and half of the Friday the 13th franchise, in addition to writing up short reviews of all the films… that’s like 24 movies that I was blitzing through for a project which ended up getting subpar views and basically no reaction. I mean, I enjoyed it regardless and I wanted to see all these movies anyway, but you can see why it would be discouraging and make me prioritize projects elsewhere.

Anyway, that’s more or less why I haven’t blogged lately. I still check in here frequently, have been working on some future posts and have like a dozen drafts for other potential posts, but this is the one that finally made it out there. Considering that, like I said, I don’t really have a regular audience here I doubt anyone particularly cares, but I want to get it out there regardless. So let’s get into Manhunter then, shall we?

That is… a poster. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it in particular, but it doesn’t get me excited or interested in this movie.


PRODUCTION
Before we get to the beginnings of what would become known as the “Hannibal Lector franchise”, we need to take a quick look at the series’ creator, authour Thomas Harris. Harris started his writing career as a reporter, including covering police and crime subjects which would influence his later works. His first novel was 1975’s Black Sunday, a political thriller about terrorists attempting to bomb the Super Bowl, which was adapted into a film in 1977. The movie was directed by John Frankenheimer and starred Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern and Marthe Keller and was a critical success. Interestingly, the studio had expected Black Sunday to be as successful as Jaws, so when it didn’t meet these lofty expectations it was seen as a disappointment. Regardless, the fact that his first novel was so met with such success meant that Harris’ writing career was poised to reach new heights.

His second novel came about in 1981 with the publication of Red Dragon, a police procedural and crime novel which Harris wrote after studying FBI techniques and serial killer profiling. Perhaps due to Harris’ previous success in Hollywood, Red Dragon was picked up by producer Dino De Laurentiis for a film adaptation, a role which he would hold on every subsequent Hannibal Lector film except, oddly enough, The Silence of the Lambs. David Lynch was originally requested to direct the film, but turned it down as he thought that the script was excessively “violent” and “degenerate”. The job instead went to Michael Mann. Mann was still very early into his career at this point, but was already becoming well known for his stylish crime dramas, being an executive producer on Miami Vice at the time. Mann worked on the script for three freaking years in pre-production, conducting research with the FBI and and with imprisoned murderer Dennis Wayne Wallace in order to ensure that the film would be authentic.

To play the leading role of Will Graham, big stars such as Richard Gere, Mel Gibson and Paul Newman were considered, but Michael Mann ended up selecting William Petersen for the part. Petersen would perhaps become best known for producing and starring in the original CSI, which was itself influenced and inspired by Manhunter. The antagonist, Francis Dollarhyde (changed from Dolarhyde in the novel, inexplicably), was played by Tom Noonan. Unlike his co-stars, Noonan decided not to research serial killers for his role and took more of a method acting approach during filming, isolating himself from cast and crew to make himself more of an outsider. Of course, the role of Hannibal Lecktor (again, changed from Lector in this film for seemingly no reason) went to Retrospectives veteran Brian Cox, who based his role on serial killer Peter Manuel. Rounding out the main cast was Joan Allen playing Reba McClane, only the second feature film role in her career. The film also features freaking Stephen Lang in a supporting role as sleazy journalist Freddie Lounds, as well as Kim Greist as Will’s wife, Molly.

In addition to the inexplicable changes to the way that certain characters’ names were spelled, the title of the film was also changed from Red Dragon to Manhunter. However, unlike those changes, this one’s cause and reasoning are quite well documented. Nearly everyone involved hated the title change, but Dino De Laurentiis demanded it after a film of his, Year of the Dragon, bombed at the box office during the production of Manhunter. He also reportedly claimed that people would mistakenly believe that Red Dragon was a kung-fu movie and therefore a different title was necessary to prevent confusion.

Despite having three years to work on the script, when filming commenced on Manhunter it was reportedly plagued with issues of time constraints. For example, the finale was filmed so late into production that the special effects crew had already left and Mann whoever was left were forced to improvise whatever means they could to pull off the big shootout. Mann also recounted how he decided during filming that he didn’t like the shots of a dragon tattoo on Dollarhyde’s chest and so all existing footage had to be hastily reshot. The reshoots weren’t able to recapture the same feel as the original footage due to these constraints. The production also weren’t able to secure a filming permit from United Airlines, so they ended up just taking a flight from Chicago to Florida and filming anyway, much to the surprise of the crew and passengers.

Manhunter was released in theatres on 15 August 1986 and was, on its release, a commercial and critical disappointment. It only managed to gross a little over half of its $15 million budget and was met with mixed reception from critics. It wouldn’t be until after the release of The Silence of the Lambs that Manhunter would get a critical reappraisal and be regarded in much higher standing. It now enjoys a cult status and many critics praise it effusively, some even saying that it’s the best Hannibal Lecter film…

PLOT SYNOPSIS
Former FBI profiler Will Graham is brought back into the fold to help catch a serial killer dubbed “The Tooth Fairy”, a sadistic madman responsible for butchering two seemingly unconnected families during the full moon. With a month until next lunar cycle, Graham searches for any leads he can find, starting with visiting imprisoned criminal Hannibal Lecktor to get insight into the killer’s motivations. Lecktor agrees to offer his insight and then uses subterfuge to discover Will’s home address. It is discovered that Lecktor and the Tooth Fairy have been communicating with each other in code via the National Tattler, a tabloid newspaper. The FBI first attempts to intercept these communications and then instead decide to intentionally defame the Tooth Fairy in order to draw him out. This doesn’t work as intended and instead the Tooth Fairy kidnaps the authour of the article, Freddy Lounds. He raves about the great work he is undertaking and that his name is the “Red Dragon”, before he straps Lounds into a wheelchair and then immolates him.

Demoralized by this failure, things get even worse when it is discovered that Lecktor’s coded message to the Tooth Fairy includes Graham’s family’s home address and instructions to have them murdered. The family is moved to a safehouse as the clock ticks down to the next murder.

Meanwhile, we get to meet Francis Dollarhyde, the Red Dragon in his everyday life. He meets with a blind co-worker, Reba McClane, who shows interest to the shy, insecure man and the two hit it off. However, when he mistakenly believes that Reba is seeing someone else, he goes into a rage, kidnapping Reba and murdering one of his co-workers. As this is happening, Will realizes that the crime scene evidence suggests that the killer had access to the victims’ home movies, as his knowledge of the victims’ residences couldn’t have been from casing them himself. This leads them to Dollarhyde, who is found preparing to murder Reba in a fit of rage. Will confronts him and a shootout ensues, ending with Will shooting Dollarhyde and ending his rampage once and for all.

REVIEW
I found Manhunter to be a particularly interesting film to watch in this day and age. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to watch this movie with fresh eyes, because so much has changed since it was released. First of all, The Silence of the Lambs itself came out only 5 years later, redefining how we would interpret this movie, reshaping how we interact with serial killer stories and stylizing the entire landscape of police procedurals and crime drama. Then came shows like CSI which brought forensics and the details of the investigation of murder to the public conscious. Not only that, but then there was the true crime boom of the past decade and how that has affected how we view and consume these kinds of stories, for better or worse. Going back to Manhunter after all of these cognitive shifts make the film feel almost simple. I also found it interesting to learn during research that changing the title from Red Dragon to Manhunter was a producer-mandated change, because it really captures the differences in this adaptation. Modern serial killer stories tend to place a lot of emphasis on the actions and motivations of the killer (including subsequent adaptations of Red Dragon), but Manhunter‘s focus is primarily on Will Graham, his investigation into the murders and the toll that it is taking on him. Dollarhyde himself doesn’t even show up until nearly an hour into the film and much of his motivation is left unexplored (again, this is especially noticeable compared to subsequent adaptations of this story, as nearly everything about the titular “Red Dragon” is omitted). The film also doesn’t linger on the lurid details of the crime scenes, the violence is after-the-fact, necessary extensions of the professional and clinical investigations. You can see this difference even in the marketing of this film – the original poster is focused on Will Graham investigating, whereas nearly every home video cover places the emphasis squarely on Dollarhyde and changes to font from the cartoony, colourful, rounded font to much more sinister-looking fonts. Like I said, it’s interesting to go back to Manhunter and see what a serial killer movie looks like with decades of evolution in the genre stripped away.

Similarly, during my research I found that the film’s stylized cinematography was particularly noted and praised by critics. In fact, upon its release, it was actually criticized for being too stylish, as if this film was goddamn 300 or something. So what is this stylishness that has the critics so in a flutter? Well… that’s a good question. In my initial viewing I didn’t notice any particularly noteworthy stylistic excess, so when I saw all this praise it made me wonder if I had not paid close enough attention, or perhaps the copy I saw was defective or something? From what I can gather, the style that’s being praised so much is that certain scenes are colour coded to allow the audience to know what to feel (eg, family scenes are awash in an unearthly blue, Dollarhyde’s scenes are tinged green, etc). I did notice these examples, but they aren’t really prevalent throughout the film so I’m still kind of left scratching my head about why they’re so notable to film critics. Again, this is also coming from a modern day lens – digital colour grading has been prevalent in Hollywood for nearly two decades now, leaving films far more over-saturated and colourful than they were able to be in the 80s, which takes away what may have been a unique charm at the time. Subsequent films in the genre, such as Seven, have also set a dark, desaturated style for serial killer films which continues to this day, which makes Manhunter‘s style feel unremarkable compared to these conventional expectations. As I said at the outset, I wish I could see this film with fresh eyes, because seeing it in 2020 makes the film feel quite dated, even if this is because it has influenced its own imitators.

Speaking of expectations, the soundtrack is another unavoidable source of dissonance. Mann fills the movie with 80s synth pop, which makes it sound more like Top Gun than the dark and serious tone a modern audience would expect from a serial killer movie. Again, this isn’t necessarily bad but it does make the film feel very dated.

In general, the direction in Manhunter is great, as one would expect of Michael Mann. Check out the scene when Will meets Dr. Lecktor for the first time for a prime example. I’m particularly impressed by the way Mann frames the shot, utilizing the cell bars for internal framing and to show the literal divide between these two characters. I noticed that these kinds of internal framing are used throughout the film and help to suggest insight into the characters rather than just telling us outright. That said, as good as the direction is, I can’t help but feel like the filming was rushed. I noted some instances of this in the production section, but I do feel like this carries over into the film in noticeable ways. The finale in particular is shot in a strange way, like Mann and company were so short on time that they mounted a bunch of cameras around Dollarhyde’s cabin and then filmed the shootout in such a way to reduce the amount of times they’d have to reset the scene. The editing is so weird too, featuring some really bad looking, low frame rate slow motion and making really jarring cuts over and over again. This would suggest that it was done for stylistic reasons, like they wanted it to be dissonant for the viewer, but in my opinion it just looks bad and robs the ending of any serious impact it may have strived for. There’s also a moment early in the film where a tree branch catches on the camera, obscuring the frame for several seconds and… why? Why did this make it into the film? Did they not have another take of this scene that was better? I honestly don’t know and while it’s definitely nitpicky and doesn’t affect my view of the film that much, it’s details like these that make me feel like the direction gets held back by some of the rougher aspects of the finished film.

I will note though that I watched the Director’s Cut of the film which had some weird issues. I don’t know if it’s just the version that I watched or what, but all the added footage was literally upscaled VHS footage and it’s patently obvious. Like, you’ll be watching the film in crisp HD and then all of a sudden it just turns to blurry VHS-quality footage, like someone was playing a Youtube video on 360p. This was strange to say the least, but I would advise either seeking out the Restored Director’s Cut (which sources these additional scenes from the original footage like they should have in the first place) or the theatrical cut, since I’d say that the additional footage doesn’t change the movie significantly (or, y’know, the Shout Factory Blu-ray which has both).

For a comparison, here’s additional footage and original footage side-by-side so you can see just how bad the difference is.

As for the characters and acting, everyone puts in solid performances. I was a little taken aback that the characters aren’t presented as flashy or larger than life as they are in later Hannibal Lector films, feeling like much more grounded human beings than heroes and villains. William Petersen plays Will Graham as a very straight-laced cop, someone who really struggles with his work, not because of a crippling character flaw but because he’s submerging himself in a world of murder, dredging up past trauma, knowing that peoples’ lives depend on him if he doesn’t succeed. While Petersen plays the character very well, I unfortunately find Will Graham to just be not a particularly compelling protagonist. One of the main reasons for this is because instead of focusing on the mental trauma this case is putting on Will, the film decides to just go for the cliched shorthand and make the real problem be that he misses his family. The film really tries to hammer home that the worst part about all of this situation is that Will has to be away from his family for nearly an entire month, dedicating several scenes to make sure we know. While the film does do some groundwork to show that this work is taking a toll on him, I didn’t get the sense that it was leaving him unhinged, making him make tough choices, or that he was in any way blurring the lines between good and evil – dude’s trying to stop a killer from killing people using the legal process, it’s hard to find much fault in that.

Tom Noonan’s Dollarhyde is also an interesting take on the character, especially compared to other incarnations. From what I understand, there are several deviations from the book which omit most scenes of Dollarhyde’s psychosis that he believes he is becoming the Great Red Dragon from William Blake’s paintings. The movie instead leaves most of his motives ambiguous, leaving us only with Will Graham suggesting that it was abuse as a child which caused Dollarhyde to develop into a murderer and that he kills ideal families because he wishes he could have one. Aside from that, we’re left to interpret for ourselves Dollarhyde’s motives based on how he is portrayed… and, man, the fact that I watched this movie through a 2020 lens strikes again because Dollarhyde is portrayed as a goddamn incel. Like, I’m not even exaggerating – he’s a socially isolated weirdo, he has a cleft palate which causes him to believe that he’s ugly and unlovable, he kills families because he doesn’t think he can ever have one, the mere suggestion that he may be homosexual throws him into a murderous rage, etc. Hell, his entire worldview gets turned upside down by the fact that Reba has sex with him and he even goes on his final rampage because the misogynist dumbass thinks that she cucked him. In this film, Dollarhyde being an incel seems to have more bearing on his actions than any sort of mental illness, which is another detail that I think is particularly interesting in retrospect. In fact, the de-emphasis of mental struggles for both Graham and Dollarhyde might show how mental illness just wasn’t openly acknowledged at the time this film came out.

Of course, I can’t ignore Brian Cox’s portrayal of Hannibal Lecktor. Like most characters in the film, he feels far more grounded and less theatrical, but is still the most dramatic role in the film despite his limited screentime rendering him essentially a plot device (not that I can argue about that, he serves his role in the plot as intended and doesn’t overshadow it). For this first portrayal of the character, Cox portrays him as a smug, amoral asshole. He openly taunts Will, talks to him like he’s the superior one (despite being locked in a prison cell) and tries to get Will’s family killed out of revenge, all while acting like he and Will are old acquaintances. It’s very distinct compared to future portrayals of the character, feeling more like what a real serial killer.

While there is a lot to enjoy in Manhunter, it just didn’t resonate with me nearly as much as I had expected it to. Like I said at the outset, this movie has been on my radar for at least a decade (if not more) and I’ve heard plenty of praise for it, but it just didn’t come together for me. I think this largely comes down to me not caring all that much about Will Graham as a character. Trying to explore exactly why I wasn’t particularly fond of the film is what drove me to do this retrospective series in the first place as it led me to all of these realizations about how the serial killer genre has changed since Manhunter came out. In that regard it is an intriguing relic of its time and, considering its cult status, it may resonate with you more than it did for me, especially if you find yourself caring about Will Graham and his family troubles. However, for my own part I thought that Manhunter was just “fine”.

6/10

Be sure to tune in again soon when we look at the next film in this franchise, The Silence of the Lambs!

Please follow and like us:

Retrospective: Atlas Shrugged Part III – Who Is John Galt? (2014)

Welcome back to the Atlas Shrugged retrospective! Today we’ll be looking at the third and (mercifully) final entry in the franchise, Atlas Shrugged Part III – Who Is John Galt? After the dumpster fires that were the first two films in this series, Aglialoro and company were back with another entirely new cast and a smaller budget than ever! Could they see this series out on a high note? Read on to find out…

Oh, and as with the last 2 entries, be sure to check out my friend Matt’s review at his blog, The M, as we both chose to suffer through this series together!


…I’m not sure if they could have gone with a more boring, non-descript and unrelated poster for this film. After several looks at the poster it appears to be a railroad, which is fair enough, but it would actually fit the first film better as there are barely any scenes on the tracks in this one. I also love how Hank gets to cameo in it in the little airplane in the corner, which unintentionally fits well into his purpose in this film.


PRODUCTION

After Aglialoro and his production team poured even more money and effort into marketing Part II, only to be met with resounding financial and critical failure, it looked questionable whether the final chapter of Atlas Shrugged would ever get off the ground. However, the filmmakers were true believers and were not going to be dissuaded. Aglialoro, along with fellow franchise producer Harmon Kaslow, set about seeing this project through and by late March 2013 it was announced that filming would begin in the fall. They were looking for a director, cast and crew at the time and Aglialoro said that “I don’t care if I’ve got to fire five directors — that’s fine. We’re going to get it right.” So, after a declaration like that, who did they ultimately hire? The answer is James Manera, who literally had one directing credit to his name on IMDb at the time, a single episode of Nash Bridges almost 20 years earlier (although he also had directed a couple small documentaries which don’t appear there). Truly Aglialoro and company had to sort through the cream of the crop to see this film series through! Duncan Scott (who had co-written the screenplay for Part II) and Brian O’Toole (who had also written the screenplays for both previous films) were tapped to return to write the screenplay for Part III. While it was announced that both would be returning to write Part III, neither are credited in the final film. Instead, writing credits go to producers John Aglialoro and Harmon Kaslow, along with director James Manera. I wasn’t able to find an answer regarding if Scott and O’Toole’s original screenplay was heavily rewritten by the producers, or if the producers just wrote their own from scratch for (presumably) budgetary reasons, but the fact that they’re the only ones who are credited in the finished product is rather interesting. Also, a fun tidbit – back before Part I was released, Aglialoro had toyed with the idea of having Part III suddenly be a musical, but this idea never got anywhere near the final product. It’s just funny to see that Aglialoro had ideas that could have made this franchise’s continuity even more baffling.

As for the obligatory recasting, the role of Dagny was filled by Laura Regan, probably best known for a short stint on Mad Men, some minor horror movie roles and a number of guest TV appearances. The esteemed role of John Galt went to Kristoffer Polaha, who was similarly best known for a short stint on Mad Men and a number of guest TV appearances (my first thoughts on seeing him in this film were that he looked like a Hallmark channel love interest and, lo and behold, he’s been in 6 Hallmark channel movies since this film came out). Hank Rearden was played in this film by Rob Morrow, who had earned Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for his roles in Northern Exposure and then had a successful run leading Numb3rs, making him probably the biggest name in the cast. The next biggest name in the cast was veteran character actor Joaquim de Almeida, known for big roles in Clear and Present Danger, Desperado and Fast Five among many, many others. De Almeida was cast to play Francisco D’Anconia. James Taggart was played by Greg Germann, who was probably best known for Ally McBeal, but seems to have been confined to minor roles ever since. Rounding out the notable recast characters was Peter Mackenzie as Head of State Thompson, who was a pretty decent character actor in his own right, but was never going to live up to Ray Wise’s portrayal from the last film. Finally, Part III also introduces us to Ragnar Danneskjöld, played by Eric Allan Kramer, who had some big roles in Robin Hood: Men in Tights and True Romance early in his career but had been confined to character roles and guest appearances ever since. Oh and it’s also worth noting that, like Part II, Part III also features conservative celebrity cameos from the likes of Presidential candidate Ron Paul, along with Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, all providing the “voice of reason” in the film.



While filming was intended to start in the fall of 2013, it did not actually begin until mid-January 2014. This was likely because the producers’ fundraising came up shorter than they had expected (around $10 million split evenly between the filming and marketing budgets) and so they launched a month-long Kickstarter campaign on September 23, 2013! This Kickstarter makes for a very interesting relic to pour over for a retrospective. $446,907 was raised during the campaign by 3,554 backers… but if you look closer at how the numbers break down, at least $100,000 of this was raised by the 10 highest-donating backers! Another 12 contributed a further $65,000+ and then 65 more contributed another $65,000+, meaning that more than half of the funds were supplied by 87 people – a measly 2% of the total backers! Clearly there were lots of rich people who had nothing better to do with their money than to throw it at this film… and, funnily enough, we actually know who some of these people are because 16 people who donated a staggering $7,500 or more had their names very crudely carved into a piece of wood and appear prominently on screen (it’s jarring and funny to see in the finished film though because these rough carvings are flanking carvings which were clearly done with some professional tools beforehand, so their names just look like they were done by angsty teens).


Of course, this Kickstarter ended up generating a number of justifiably snarky comments about how the filmmakers sure were relying on altruism from their libertarian audience to bring about this film after it failed so spectacularly on the free market. Anticipating this response, the Kickstarter featured not one, but two FAQs about how it was not against Ayn Rand’s philosophy to ask people for money, even going so far as to dedicate a whole other article on this topic on The Atlas Society as well. Having learned more about Objectivism from this retrospectives series, I actually do understand their argument, which is summed up pretty well by the FAQ response:

“Kickstarter is not charity and we do not seek charity. We are offering a voluntary value-for-value exchange. If you see no value in any of the reward levels, you should not back the project. Regarding the idea of charity however, Ayn Rand had no problem with someone giving money to a cause they care about. If someone deems a cause worthy and wants to donate money, they should be free to do it. What Ayn Rand had a problem with is altruism for the sake of altruism as a moral duty, or being compelled, or forced, to ‘give.'”

While I do understand their argument, it comes across as a fairly arbitrary distinction to me – whenever they ask for a handout, they’re exonerated because they will say that it’s a value exchange (although charging $7,500 to get your name crudely carved onto a piece of wood sounds closer to a “scam” to me, especially when the film had already been financed and was going to happen regardless). However, whenever anyone else asks for a handout, they’ll characterize them as moochers and looters. Add in the fact that they ignore that even when they’re “forced” to give, there’s still value being created in having a society that functions properly, which would be even more valuable if they weren’t such crusty bastards who hate the idea of other people living at a reasonable standard. So, yeah, I can see how they can justify this Kickstarter within their own philosophy, but it just feels like another convenience to allow Objectivists to do what they want while looking down on people with less means for doing the same.

Interestingly, Rand devotees and fans of the movie franchise were invited to an event at the Atlas Summit in order to help determine the final edit of the film. I wasn’t able to determine how exactly this event went, how involved it was or how it might have affected the final film, but it’s a really interesting detail which shows how the filmmakers were attempting to get directly involved with the public on this particular film. The film was released on September 12, 2014 to a much smaller opening of 242 screens, grossing a measly $851,690 against its $10 million filming and marketing budget. This means that, if you add together the marketing and production budgets of all three films (including the ~$15 million which was spent on Part I before it went into full production), the Atlas Shrugged franchise lost almost $45 million dollars!!! HOLY SHIT!!! Even if you just factor in the costs which went directly into these three films, that’s still a huge, $30 million dollar loss that could have been prevented if the filmmakers weren’t so proud or dogmatic that they insisted on pushing on, ballooning their losses with each misstep.


Start the video at 16:06, it conveys how this news makes me feel more clearly than my own words could.

PLOT SYNOPSIS

The film opens by recounting the events which caused John Galt to quit the Twentieth Century Motor Company and declare that he would “stop the engine of the world”. It then picks up where the last movie left off, with Galt rescuing Dagny from her plane crash. He then shows her around his hidden valley, where the greatest minds in the country have gone for refuge from the outside world. They have established a secret utopia here, with their own currency and a radical libertarian social structure straight out of the philosophy of Rand. Galt and the locals try to convince Dagny to stay with them, but she refuses to abandon the rest of the world. Over the course of a month, a romance begins to spark between Galt and Dagny, but they are forced to part as he takes her back to the outside world.


When she returns, Dagny finds that James has mismanaged Taggart Transcontinental even worse than before, having negotiated deals which would nationalize the railroad and cut off food supplies to the east coast. The government has also gotten increasingly militaristic, building lethal sonic weapons to enforce martial law. Dagny manages to prevent a disaster on the railroad due to her ingenuity and, when she realizes that John Galt has been watching her do this, the pair’s passion finally boils over into a railroad closet bang-session. Shortly thereafter, the head of state arranges a televised speech, but it is interrupted when Galt intercepts the signal and relays his own speech instead, laying out his philosophy and urging the people to join him in his strike. This act of defiance finally causes the government to go looking for Galt to recruit or eliminate him, and he is found when Dagny inadvertently leads agents to his location. Dagny pretends to have done this intentionally and Galt is brought before Head of State Thompson. Thompson offers Galt the highest position he can, with the ability to set his economic ideals how he sees fit, but Galt refuses, saying that no man should have that kind of power. In response, the government decides to torture him for his defiance. Dagny, along with a few supporters from Galt’s refuge, break in and rescue him and the group fly away as the power grid across America shuts down, signalling the collapse of Thompson’s ineffective rule.


REVIEW

Watching Part III is an experience, to the point where I wasn’t more than 2 seconds in when I had to pause the movie to make my first note. The first frame of the film opens with a title sequence that says “The day after tomorrow…”, which just caused a cascade of thoughts. First of all, it shows that the filmmakers really do believe that everything that happens in this film could happen – the cartoonish characters and insane politics on display in these films aren’t just done for illustrative purposes, they really do think that this is what non-libertarians think, believe and behave like. Secondly, this title inadvertently causes confusion, because it immediately got me thinking about the equally-preposterous Roland Emmerich disaster film The Day After Tomorrow. Both films share similar flaws. Both are just fundamentally dumb – in The Day After Tomorrow‘s case, it’s like a particularly dumb environmentalist’s take on climate change, whereas Atlas Shrugged is like a particularly dumb conservative’s take on economics and politics. Again, we’re not even 10 seconds into this film and the first freaking thing we see is causing me to dunk on this film.

Honestly, actual act of watching Part III took me more than twice the film’s runtime to complete because I was pausing to take notes constantly. There were just so many unbelievably dumb things packed into this movie that I could not stop writing. Compared to the inept passion on display in Part II and even Part I, Part III is a clear step backwards because it is so embarrassingly shoddy. I feel like Aglialoro and Kaslow were devoted enough to Rand’s ideology that they felt like they had to complete the trilogy, but after losing tens of millions of dollars on the project already, it feels like this final film was half-assed it to get it over with because it definitely wasn’t going to earn them any more money back. I mean, sure, the other two films sucked, but they at least felt like the filmmakers believed in them and wanted them to transcend their limited budgets. Part III just feels like they gave up and wrapped up the ending of this trilogy as fast and as cheaply as they could. I mean, look at that plot synopsis – it’s so short! I’m not skipping over huge chunks of the plot either, because most of the shit that happens in this film doesn’t matter, it’s just about preaching to the audience and spinning the wheels until the film ends unceremoniously. I have so much to talk about with this film, so strap in, we’re going to tear this thing apart.


Here’s Francisco looking appropriately drained in response to watching this film.


First off, let’s start with how cheap this film looks. Cheapness pervades the sets throughout the film. Remember how I said that they loved showing off the bigger sets in Part II, as if they were proud of their improved production quality? Part III ignores scale and set dressing as much as possible, filling a scene with the bare minimum of props and, ideally, seems to just shoot on location as much as possible to save cash. This is immediately apparent from the very first scene. We get a flashback to the Twentieth Century Motor Corporation, in which the heads of the company call a meeting about their new salary structure and John Galt’s strike begins. This scene clearly appears to have been filmed in a worn-out high school gym, rather than a factory, complete with sports line markings on the floor and paint peeling on the walls (this can’t even be for thematic reasons either, because up until this point the company has been run under a Randian ideal so it should look pristine). Even the company’s banner isn’t wide enough to fit between a pair of support columns, so it’s awkwardly pinned at a strange angle, like they didn’t take a proper measurement before they got this thing made up and couldn’t afford a replacement. And this is just the first scene! From there we get bland corporate spaces for Taggart Transcontinental and the government’s offices, and Galt’s valley, which is just a bunch of expensive cottages (note: I’m going to call it “the valley” from here on out – no one ever refers to it as “Galt’s Gulch” or anything like that, they just say it’s “the valley” so that’s the term I’m going to go with).


To top off the cheap sets, the lighting in this film is terrible. It’s usually fine during scenes in the valley – these scenes are brightly lit and colourful, but this feels like it’s only the case because they could get natural sunlight in these scenes to avoid having to pay for a full lighting setup. However, every scene outside of the valley is lit like the inside of my ass. Everything is just so poorly lit and desaturated, made duller by colour grading which turns everything to a cold shade of blue. While this may have arisen from a need to cut down on lighting costs, it has clearly been factored in as a stylistic choice to contrast the “real world” against the vibrancy of the valley. I feel like this might have been somewhat effective if they had been more judicious in its usage and/or reined the effect in somewhat, but when half of the movie ends up looking like a bland, muddied mess, it makes it a stylistic choice which was ill-advised.



Oh and speaking of ill-advised stylistic choices, here are a couple other fantastic moments of cheapness in this film. When Dagny arrives in the valley, she’s taken to a party to meet everyone and the road is lined with paper lanterns… which would be cool, but then you notice that they are literally made of paper sandwich bags with a (probably faux) candle inside! Not exactly the sort of product you’d expect from the “greatest minds in the world”, especially considering that they have an enormous holographic dome covering the entire valley, right? Even worse, they cut to close-ups on these sandwich bag lanterns… twice!!! Oh, and take a look at the screenshot above – they couldn’t even line up these lantern bags straight! It’s such a meaningless moment, but they screw pointless shit like this up at such an alarming rate that you can surely see why I was pausing the film so much to laugh and take notes. Another such moment comes late in the film when the much-hyped, nefarious, secret government torture device, Project F, is finally revealed to the audience and… it’s a car battery parrilla device, like what you’ve seen in pretty much any dark and gritty post-9/11 action movie. This is the sort of radical ingenuity which had to be plundered from the greatest minds in the world? The filmmakers clearly just didn’t give a shit and just went with the cheapest, most boring option they possibly could have, which is especially disappointing considering that Part II leaned more into the sci-fi aspect of the story.


The cheapness of this film goes hand-in-hand with its rushed plot and contrived, heavy-handed storytelling. Let’s say you want to open your film in such a way that the audience will view John Galt as not only a revolutionary figure, but also mysterious. So they start the film at a staff meeting for the Twentieth Century Motor Corporation and show Galt’s initial declaration to “stop the engine of the world”, which makes sense… but then, to hammer home their desire to make him “mysterious”, they have some guy ham-fistedly shout “who is that guy!?”, despite the fact that Galt has been working very successfully at this factory for years now, so everyone here should know him. That’s less than 2 minutes into the film, but it’s a bit of narrative convenience so obvious that I had to stop and laugh at it. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t even mention it if this film wasn’t so ham-fisted throughout – for example, later in the film they need to have the government bad guys convey information to the audience: the government is working on something awful called Project F and they’re planning on having a national televised speech. Rather than doing so organically, they literally just have all of the bad guys have a secret meeting about Project F without going into any details and then someone says “we need to make sure the speech is on all the networks” and then the scene literally ends! No information on what Project F might be, no indication about what “the speech” even is about, just conveying the bare minimum of what they want us to know and that’s it. The film has also been setting up that the railroad has become so mismanaged that Taggart bridge will eventually collapse, a prediction that Dagny has said could never happen. Then, right before the film ends, Francisco just comes out of nowhere and then says “Did you hear? The Taggart bridge collapsed!” It’s just so uneventful and matter-of-fact and Dagny’s non-reaction just makes it a hilarious moment.



However, the strangest bit of narrative convenience definitely revolves around Cheryl Taggart. She had basically no purpose in Part II so I assumed that that meant she must do something important in Part III, but nope. We literally find out that she died when a character casually holds a newspaper up in front of the screen!!! I had to do a double-take, it was such a strange way to write a character out unceremoniously. The film then decides that they have to do a flashback to explain all of this, so with a dream filter over the screen they explain that Cheryl found out that her husband was a fraud, which causes her to apologize to Dagny at some undefined time and then… just died. They don’t say how, but the way that they don’t say how suggests that James had her offed. From what I understand of this character’s fate in the books, we’re supposed to realize that she commits suicide in shame, but that doesn’t come across in this film at all. The filmmakers clearly don’t care about her, they just check off this character’s “arc” as fast as possible and then rush to the next plot point.


Another bit of narrative convenience is that the film cuts to voice-over exposition throughout to let the audience know what is going on. These exposition dumps interrupt the film constantly and are so disconnected from the actual events going on on-screen. Even worse, they gloss over events which probably deserved to be given more importance, such as when it is announced that Hank Rearden has “disappeared” and then his factory workers who were left behind were killed by the government strike-breakers, holy shit!!! Were Hank’s workers a bunch of moochers? Why would he leave them behind to literally die!? And why was this told to the audience impassively? I kept thinking that these exposition dumps were going to tie into the ending, where it would reveal that someone would be recounting what happened in the past during these segments, but no, the whole thing gets dropped by the time the third act rolls around. Personally, I think that this awful ham-fisted writing is probably down to John Agalioro’s screenwriting “talents”. He co-wrote the screenplay for Part I, which had similarly bad writing at times, but it was tempered in by Brian Patrick O’Toole. Part II didn’t really suffer in this regard, presumably since Aglialoro didn’t write it (its writing issues were more a problem of wheel-spinning and bad philosophy). However, Part III gaves Aglialoro and Kaslow full writing credits and it’s clear from the final product that neither of them are qualified to write a screenplay. Like… there’s a part in this film where super-genius John Galt outsmarts the bad guys by getting arrested and then using his cell phone during a meeting with Head of State Thompson to call Dagny and let her in on their evil plans!!! Why the hell would they not confiscate his phone!?! That’s Tommy Wiseau-levels of screenwriting talent!



The bad screenwriting leads to all sorts of unintentional hilarity, such as how it makes Galt’s whole movement look like a dangerous cult. Like, a hidden commune in the mountains living by their own set of rules is already sounding pretty Jonestown, so you’d think that they’d do something to avoid coming across that way. Well, moments after crash landing, Dagny is informed by Galt that there are certain rules to living in the valley. He tells her that, most importantly, no one gets a free pass at someone else’s expense. The whole exchange is shot and staged in such a way that it feels like Galt is heavily implying “you’re gonna have to fuck me if you stay here”. Then there are the oaths that everyone in the valley are forced to make in order to stay, the way that this community has been isolated from differing opinions, and how all of Dagny’s old friends plead with her to throw away her life, ideals and very identity to join this lovely little movement. This is best shown in two different scenes. The first is when Dagny’s friends identify that she just wants some acknowledgement for the things she has accomplished and so they give her adulation for a job well done to try to goad her into staying. The second comes when we see that all of Dagny’s friends have carved personalized messages over her bed for her to read when she goes to sleep!!! Read this way, it ultimately turns Part III into a depressing story about how a cult tears away Dagny’s support system until she loses her will to help people and then joins the cult herself. It reminds me of The Endless, and if this film had even an ounce of self-awareness we could have gotten an awesome film about Dagny fighting back against this cult which has been leeching away the stability of the world’s economy.


Of course, Aglialoro and Kaslow can’t even hit the important parts of Atlas Shrugged well. Perhaps most tellingly, the romance between Dagny and Galt feels totally forced and unnatural. Sure, the film tries to tell us that they’re totally into each other from the first time that they lock eyes, but it never feels convincing. Considering that Ayn Rand herself said that Atlas Shrugged was ultimately nothing more than a love story, this is pretty damning criticism. Dagny’s insistence on aiding the world is totally at odds with Galt’s insistence on allowing things to get worse. Maybe if he grew and changed his opinion this could have worked, which seems to be implied when Dagny and Galt have an impromptu fuck-session after Dagny organizes a plan to prevent a rail disaster from occurring (which, by the way, is definitely the funniest scene in the film – they don’t even know if the plan worked or if there are people dying out there, they just need to get their rocks off pronto). However, it turns out that Galt’s values haven’t changed at all, and in fact it’s Dagny’s which are cast away by the end. Other than that, we’re given a bunch of boilerplate Hallmark movie moments where Dagny and Galt sight-see around the valley, which apparently is a shorthand for blossoming romance without having to do any real groundwork to convince us that they actually like each other.


Then there’s Galt’s big speech, which is ~60 pages long in the original text (or over 3 hours if spoken aloud!!!). Like d’Anconia’s “money speech” in Part II, this speech has been pared down considerably, running in at just under 5 minutes. Personally, I feel like it comes across better than d’Anconia’s speech did, but that’s for a couple of unintentional reasons. First of all, it’s significantly less nasty and confrontational than d’Anconia’s speech was. Secondly, the text has been cut down so much that you could interpret it as a call to stand up against exploitative businessmen, rather than just the government, which is probably way more communist than they were intending. It also doesn’t help that this exact same message has been hammered into the audience’s head all through the first half of the film, so by the time it comes it’s just 5 minutes of more-of-the-same rather than a revolutionary statement. The plot also just halts entirely during this 5 minute sequence, so the fact that it’s conveying information we already have been told repeatedly does it no favours. Maybe if they had cut out all the lectures when Dagny was in the valley this could have landed stronger, but coming long after them just feels like more wheel-spinning in a film filled with it.



The dialogue is also just baffling at times, to the point where I don’t know if they’re just lifting lines awkwardly from the text or if they’re using the first take from each shot, mis-remembered lines and all. Like, just look at that line above – I had to rewind the film several times to make sure I wasn’t mishearing or misunderstanding that line, because it sounds like it went through Google translate. What the hell is “It’s like I can’t believe you’re alive” even supposed to mean? I guess that Francisco was under the impression that Dagny was dead based on the news of her disappearance, but wouldn’t he say “I thought you were dead!” instead? “I can’t believe you’re alive” would even be better, if still a really awkward line. “It’s like I can’t believe you’re alive” just makes no sense whatsoever. It’s not the only line like that though. Later, John Galt takes Dagny to the power source for the valley and there is an oath emblazoned above it. He then says “Everyone has taken that oath who lives in this valley.” …what? Again, I don’t know if this is some important line from the book or Aglialoro and Kaslow’s writing, but it just sounds wrong. I had to look up active vs passive voice just to make sure I wasn’t forgetting some grammatical rule, but even that makes this seem totally wrong – the people in the valley should be the subject and the oath is the verb, so shouldn’t this be “Everyone who lives in this valley has taken that oath”? That’s way less awkward and gets the point across more succinctly, in my opinion… but what do I know, I’m not some rich super-genius now am I?


Of course, it’s not just the actual writing which is awful in this film, the editing is also terrible. This wouldn’t be an Atlas Shrugged film without an insane amount of narrative padding, and boy is there ever a lot of wasted time in this film. The first time we see this is when John Galt takes Dagny to his home after her plane crash. This sequence involves a long shot of Galt’s car driving down a road, the car driving to his house, Galt getting out of the car, walking around it to open the door and then pick up Dagny to take her into the house… hell, they even had to show him closing the car door, just so we wouldn’t be left wondering if he did. All told, this whole sequence takes 45 seconds to do something that could have been done in 10-15 by a professional editor. Sure, that’s just one 45 second sequence, but it’s emblematic of the film itself, as it is just loaded with sequences that don’t actually add anything to drive the plot or characters forward. This kind of editing is a trend throughout the film, as there are numerous pointless establishing shots of nature and people travelling to places, almost like something from the Left Behind books. It got to the point where I was laughing at every new nature montage, but by the time I was learning to expect them, they escalate into a sequence which is truly special. When Dagny chooses to leave the valley, John Galt takes her to his plane and starts it up, resulting in a flying nature montage as they leave… then, moments after they land and say their goodbyes, we get another shot of the plane starting up and then leaving, and then we get a train nature montage as Dagny returns to civilization (gotta waste another 2 minutes of this film somehow)! Now, to be fair, these nature shots are probably the best shots in the film due to the inherent beauty of mountains and wilderness, but they’re also completely pointless to the plot, so what does that tell you about the film itself… oh, and there’s also a good chance that most of them are stock footage, so double yikes! It’s like they don’t think we’ll understand how characters get from place-to-place without showing several seconds of unnecessary travel and unimportant nature footage. (EDIT: Actually, I think that the filmmakers might just think that we’re all stupid. I was going back through the film to freshen up on some of the details and noticed a scene transition which is literally a extended shot centered on a wine bottle’s label – this would be notable even if it was just bad product placement, but this was for a fictional vineyard for one of the characters. Then I realized that this shot was from some other footage from this scene, zoomed in significantly to show off the blurry bottle so we know where this scene is supposed to be taking place, and then put into slow motion as well for no discernible reason!!! They didn’t think that this wine bottle, which is present during the entire scene, wouldn’t be enough of a context clue within the scene? Holy shit this film is just a treasure trove that never stops giving back to me!)


While the constant time wasting is probably the most obvious example of bad editing in this film, there are other instances peppered throughout. The next most obvious example would have to be when a railworker calls Eddie to warn him that the rails are so mismanaged that there is going to be an imminent disaster. It’s a classic set-up for a potentially tense scene, reminding me of the train crash from Part II. Will Dagny be able to stop the disaster in time? Hah, just kidding, nothing happens after this phone call. I was really confused at first – weren’t they playing this thing up like people were literally about to die? What happened to the urgency? But then it turns out that the disaster was actually going to happen a few days later (several minutes later in the film), but it makes the urgency of this initial warning so strange. Why did they not just have this worker warn them of the disaster right before it was going to happen instead of doing nothing about it, moving the story forward, and then coming back to it later? It would have made for a much more tense sequence, but instead it just deflates the tension. There’s another editing choice near the end of the film which just left me baffled. I’m not even sure where else to put this because it’s so strange – the bad guys get mad because Project F breaks and then when they’re leaving the room there’s this completely random and pointless slow motion sequence where one of the bad guys yells “We’ll be back, you son of a bitch!” I cannot understand this editing choice at all… Like, it’s random enough that I really hope it was something that was suggested at that Atlas Society meeting I mentioned earlier though, where “the fans” got to provide input on the final cut of the film. I hope that there was just some dude there who yelled “Needs more slow motion!” and they decided that this was the only moment tense enough to work. I need an explanation because this is possibly the most baffling moment in the whole movie!



Then we come to the fact that the filmmakers once again recast all of the characters in this film. Even moreso than Part II, Part III demonstrates why it’s not a good idea to recast after every film. There are so many moments in the early parts of the film which rely on Dagny reuniting with familiar faces that had disappeared, but every time they would introduce them I would go “am I supposed to know you?” Hell, I was even getting characters mixed up because of this; early in the film I kept thinking that Akston was Quentin Daniels from Part II, because characters constantly flit in and out of this series and I didn’t have any visual reference for the character any more (it’s bad enough that I didn’t even remember who Akston was supposed to be until I went back to edit my review of Part I). It’s also a particular issue with the bad guys, because the film then has to pause and waste another 15 seconds telling us who everyone is with freeze frames and pop-up text. It also doesn’t help that characters who were important in the previous two films are shunted aside in this film. Hank Rearden is the most obvious and perplexing example of this. In the previous two films, he was the co-lead and second point-of-view character along with Dagny. He had also had some pretty big character moments in Part II, between his victory in court and being coerced into signing away his patents to Rearden Metal. Clearly they were setting him up to have some sort of big role in the third film, right? Nope, he gets about 10 seconds of screen time, leaves a voicemail and then is unceremoniously dumped from the story! What the hell!?! I can’t help but feel that he had a bigger role in the original story but they didn’t have time or budget for him and so wrote him out. All that said, he’s so absent in this film that I’ve read that he’s involved in the rescue mission to save John Galt at the end of the movie and had no idea – he’s not highlighted, nor have we seen enough of him in this film to even realize that it was him anyway. While not quite as important, Wesley Mouch is another prime example of this shunting issue. In the previous two films, he was arguably the primary antagonist, but in this one he barely shows up and his purpose is replaced almost entirely by Head of State Thompson. It doesn’t help that the actor who was cast to play him is very indistinct and looks very similar to Head of State Thompson, to the point where I cannot remember even seeing him beyond his introductory scene (and even then, only because they literally put text on the screen to say that he was Mouch).


As for the comparisons of the cast, Part III has by far the worst cast of the series. The only actor who might have put in the best performance of his character would be Greg Germann as James Taggart, but that’s just because the character is such a cartoon that I can’t really say that there was a “definitive” take on him. Greg Germann tries to take him in a somewhat more serious route, but there’s only so much you can do with James Taggart. The rest of the cast are just the bottom of the barrel. I don’t know if Laura Regan is a good actress or not, but she is just terrible as Dagny. Her line deliveries are flat and unconvincing throughout and her facial expressions don’t match the tone she’s trying to convey. It’s such a shame, especially after Samantha Mathis made me actually care somewhat about this character in Part II. Oh and speaking of which, Laura Regan is 8 years younger than Mathis, but looks even younger, providing a bit more whiplash about the recasting (especially when her former lover, Francisco, shows up looking like he’s 69 years old now). John Galt wasn’t really much of a presence in the previous films, but he always had some sort of mystery to him. Fully unmasked, Kristoffer Polaha’s Galt is just a Hallmark channel boy hunk, not the genius architect of the revolution that’s crippling society. I never found him particularly convincing, although compared to Laura Regan he was certainly the better of the two leads. In some ways, it’s probably best that Hank Rearden got written out, because the one line Rob Morrow delivers for him is so bad. I miss Grant Bowler’s more charming take on the character. And, as I alluded earlier, Joaquim de Almeida looks waaaay too old to be Francisco d’Anconia – he’s 20 years older than Laura Regan, and considering that she looks younger than she actually is, it suddenly begs the question of when exactly Dagny and Francisco were supposed to be a couple. De Almeida is a good enough actor that he’s fine in general in the role, but he’s clearly not stretching his acting muscles any. As douchey and sinister as he was, Esai Morales’ take on d’Anconia was probably the best, because at least he brought some energy to the role. Lastly, considering that Head of State Thompson only had a cameo appearance in Part II, you’d think that Peter Mackenzie would have an easier time becoming the definitive performance for the role… however, considering that that cameo appearance was portrayed by freaking Ray Wise, Mackenzie was screwed from the start. He’s fine as a scenery-chewing villain, but when you’re competing in that role against Ray Wise, you’re never going to win. The cast is bad across the board, with only a couple performances reaching the level of “fine”.


 

Whew, all of that said, we haven’t even gotten to the philosophy and politics in this film! Aglialoro and The Atlas Society had complained about people saying that John Galt’s strike was just a big temper tantrum, but the fact that they open this film by essentially confirming it feels like a big blunder to me. Seriously, the film opens with the Twentieth Century Motor Corporation announcing that they’ve adopted a wage scale, which causes Galt to freak out. Instead of just quitting, he declares that he is going to destroy the entire world economy, all because his job got restructured in a way that didn’t benefit him directly! I’m sorry, based on how you have portrayed this character, how is that not equivalent to a child throwing a temper tantrum and taking away his toys?

For a story that’s supposed to be extolling the virtue of selfishness, Part III does the worst job of trying to justify this. During what might be the most offensive moment in the entire trilogy, Hugh Akston tries to change Dagny’s view of conventional morality. He claims that believing that you have to help people is wrong because it causes unworthy people to get into positions of power. He claims that, in conventional morality, you are considered virtuous for what you do for others rather than what you achieve. This is a patently false assertion. Just look at people like Oprah, Steve Jobs, Michael Phelps, Daniel Day Lewis, or Stephen Hawking – people who are known and praised for their personal successes. Bill Gates might be the most obvious denial of this whole idea, since he’s a self-made uber-billionare in the Randian mould, except that he’s famous for his personal successes and praised for his altruism. Still, that’s not even the worst part of this scene. Akston claims that, because of this view on conventional morality, the unworthy will forcibly take from “those who have earned their money” in order to help the less fortunate if they will not comply. He then delivers this line:

“You’ve heard them say that people have a right to a living just because they’re human. And that’s not the right to earn a living, that’s the right to a living, which you are required to give to them.”

Woooooow. The filmmakers tried to explain Randian philosophy in the most reasonable-sounding way possible, but it still comes across as fucking evil. Akston straight-up admits that he doesn’t believe that people have a right to a living just because they exist. As far as he’s concerned, if you’re not doing something to “provide value” then you might as well die because you’re doing nothing to deserve your life. The serious ethical concerns of this should be obvious and numerous:

  • What about those who are injured while working? Sure, they were providing value for a time, but might as well let them and all of their dependants starve to death now! Or what about if, due to the negligence or unethical practices of a company, people are injured? Should there not be a legal right to a living for these people, considering that they were robbed of it by the actions of someone trying to enrich themselves?
  • What about the elderly who can’t work anymore, especially if they never had enough means to have any savings for retirement? Better just to set them loose in the woods during the winter.
  • What about freaking kids? When does this philosophy even come into effect anyway? Kids are not only going to be providing no “value” for several years, but they are going to be actively draining their parents’ resources as well, meaning that only those who are very well established will be able to actually afford to have children within this economic framework!
  • What about those who actually are working but still aren’t able to get by? Live in a hovel, you moochers!

Rand was very intentionally going against conventional morality here, because she viewed it as a framework which enabled the “oppression” of the great minds in society. Central to this was that religious principles were nothing more than another tool of the people in power. In order to show this, the filmmakers considered including a scene where Dagny meets a priest. I can already imagine this scene playing out in my head, but the fact that it was cut from the final film is pretty telling. Many of the libertarians who parrot Rand’s talking points are Christian, including the right-wing celebrities who cameo in this film such as Sean Hannity and Ron Paul (and Glenn Beck, who is Mormon). There’s already some significant cognitive dissonance required to call yourself a follower of Christ while also claiming that people who can’t provide value don’t deserve to live, but imagine if the filmmakers had included a scene where they explicitly stated that religion goes against their worldview. Half of this film’s meagre audience would be outraged at their audacity. This whole attempt to redefine morality just pisses me off though, and is by far the worst segment in the entire trilogy. When Akston dismissively states that “their philosophy is based how much you sacrifice to other people, not on what you achieve”, I could not help but think of Jesus’ words about how the rich donate large amounts to show off how generous they are, but the poor widow who donates gave everything she had and was therefore viewed as more generous. Contrast that to Galt and his followers, who are throwing a hissy fit because the government is forcing them to skim some of their wealth in order to help other people? Fuck you all.


Galt’s explanation to this criticism is that “We honour charity and benevolence, but it must be provided on the giver’s terms, voluntarily and not by force.” While I can see some value in the argument that they’re making here, it ignores a couple of things. First of all, Galt and his followers will staunchly refuse to give to any cause, no matter how worthwhile, if there is any force involved or implied. They could merely volunteer to give to a cause that they think is worthy, but we never see anyone actually do this (in Part I, Hank makes a donation to a cause he doesn’t agree with, but this is done out of a feeling of obligation).


Secondly, the actions of the characters contradict any notion that they might care about charity or benevolence. Seconds after Galt makes that statement, Dagny asks “What about what you left behind?”, referring to the rest of the world and all of the people who are suffering under the economic collapse Galt engineered. Galt simply says “We left nothing behind, Dagny. We took with us the only real thing of value. Dagny, this is a strike of our minds.” So clearly they don’t see anything of value in the outside world – everyone there is a moocher and it doesn’t matter to Galt if they suffer or die without them. This is barely even subtext either – it’s not like the people in the valley don’t realize what is happening in the outside world, they just don’t care. Part of the oath that everyone in the valley must take is that they will not “live for someone else”. Galt himself tells Dagny that, because there is no one competent to run the railroads, Taggart bridge will collapse imminently, showing that he doesn’t really care that innocent people are literally dying because of his strike.


Thirdly, there are several moments in the film where characters reveal that they have technology that could revolutionize the world, but have chosen not to for no discernible reason. For example, Dr. Hendricks inspects Dagny’s injuries using a handheld diagnostic device, similar to a handheld x-ray, and says “every doctor should have one”. Well, gee doc, if that’s what you think, what’s stopping you from giving one to every doctor? It’s not like he’s even going and selling them either! He has life-changing technology at his disposal and he’s choosing not to give it to anyone else. Or there’s the fact that Galt has a car in this film. It took me a little bit to realize “wait, no one drives cars in this universe, what the hell?” Considering that gasoline is extremely expensive in Atlas Shrugged and can’t really be being refined in the valley, it’s likely that they have come up with some sort of alternative fuel source… which, one again, they’re just hording here and not providing to all of the people being forced to deal with the increasingly-deadly rail lines. Perhaps the biggest “fuck you” in the whole film though comes when Galt reveals his working motor which has been hyped up in the previous two films. He reveals that it costs virtually nothing to maintain it and it’s so powerful that just one motor held in a space the size of a shed could power the entire West Coast!!! Again, this is so cheap that he could literally give it away – can you imagine unlimited, free, clean power for everyone and the sorts of changes that that would make in society? Hell, he could even sell it at an unrealistic mark-up and still change the world for the better. But, again, John Galt chooses to horde this because all he wants is appreciation and the ability to refuse people who don’t kowtow to his way of thinking. Tell me again about how you value benevolence Galt, because you sure as shit don’t demonstrate it in your actions.



Galt makes the claim that he is not imposing his values on the rest of the world, merely leaving the moochers to go about their own business, but this is also demonstrably false. Crippling the world’s economy in protest and hijacking the airwaves in order to convey your manifesto are hardly unimposing gestures, but what really contradicts this is that Galt is in league with Ragnar Danneskjöld, a literal pirate. Ragnar has been raiding shipping lines, stealing raw goods which (in his view) have been forcibly taken by governments so he’s just stealing them back. It’s one thing to, say, have Ellis Wyatt burn his oil fields and then disappear for good, but it would be another thing entirely if he kept coming back to burn down any reconstruction attempts, which is basically what Ragnar is doing here. Hell, at one point in the film, Dagny laments that there isn’t enough copper wire left to keep the trains running, which prompted me to say “hey, maybe tell your friend Ragnar to lay off then, he’s the one causing this shortage”, especially since it’s literally leading to the starvation of chunks of the population. At what point do these brainwashed Galt cultists think that goods have been acquired fairly? They are clearly trying to hasten the economic collapse, no matter how innocuous and innocent the film wants to portray them to be.


And how about these “greatest minds” that Galt has been taking to his valley? One of the first we’re introduced to is Midas Mulligan, owner of America’s largest bank. This struck me as a particularly odd choice, since isn’t banking largely the manipulation of money which d’Anconia was raging about in the previous film? Apparently it doesn’t count when private citizens do it, because Mulligan gets a whole monologue about how he’s been “wronged”. According to Mulligan, he made his fortune by lending money to people to buy homes and build businesses, saying that “I only loaned to those people I was confident could repay me” (eg, the people who were already rich and well off). However, then the government forced him to make slightly less of a profit by lending to people who couldn’t repay him, so he immediately threw a hissy fit and left for the valley. So… he couldn’t collect years of additional interest payments on the people who couldn’t pay him back? I wonder how many fans of this film also would cite It’s a Wonderful Life as their favourite Christmas movie, because Mulligan sounds exactly like that film’s villain, Mr. Potter. In that film, George Bailey bends over backwards to try to help the poor and disenfranchised in order to give them a chance at a life they otherwise may not have, and most people would indeed say he is virtuous for doing so. Can you imagine someone trying to claim that Mr. Potter was the one who was actually virtuous and that we need to be more like him? That’s basically the message Part III tries to hammer into you during its entire runtime.


One of the other notable “great minds” we get introduced to is Dr. Hendricks, who claims that he got sick of the government telling him how to treat his patients, so he ran off to the valley to treat them using “his own professional judgement”. This immediately got me thinking of Dr. Suchong from Bioshock, along with basically every other mad doctor trope. The film even unintentionally endorses this theory since Hendricks claims that his handheld diagnostic device was only made possible because there was “no red tape” to stop him… which begs the question of just how many people were killed, irradiated and/or sterilized to make this thing possible. Most doctors will tell you that regulations exist for a damn good reason and there’s also a reason why travelling to places with loose regulations is both a punchline and incredibly dangerous. But, just like in Part I, Hendricks is “worthy” so there shouldn’t be any restrictions on him, because he’s always right about everything (besides, if he did kill someone then that would mean that he wasn’t worthy after all).



This film also brushes up against so many issues which could have challenged the cartoonish take on reality that they’ve constructed, but which are just ignored. One such example is that Dagny meets a mother in the valley who is homeschooling her children. This scene feels like it was just thrown in to pander to conservatives who have a boner for homeschooling their kids, but in practice it raises so many more questions: if she’s homeschooling them, then how is she managing to pay her own way in the valley? Or how are the kids creating any value for that matter? Is wanting to homeschool your kids all that it takes to have John Galt invite you to his valley? Who knows! The film just introduces the concept in order to let all those conservative mommies know that they’re doing a Good Thing™ and then moves on without addressing any complications.


Or what about the fact that Dagny is expected to pay for her own medical treatment after the plane crash, revealing that there is (obviously) no healthcare in the valley? How many people have become ill and died in the valley because of this? Why don’t we see any of the people who have become destitute because they can’t pay their medical bills anymore? Oh, right, those don’t exist because Part III exists in a fantasy reality.


Or what about the fact that the valley seems to have a number of menial workers providing everyone with food and labour? We see restaurant workers, a farmer’s market, and a coal mine (amongst other things) while in the valley, but who is actually manning these? Did John Galt convince the greatest minds in the country to come to the valley and then make them start doing coal mining to stay alive? Or was he so comprehensive that he found the best coal miners in the world and then promised them a better life where they can mine even more coal? And if that’s the case, why didn’t they bring Hank Rearden’s factory workers with him when he left (because presumably Hank would have only retained workers who were up to his standards) instead of leaving them to be killed by strikebreakers? That’s the thing that’s being overlooked here – in order to work, the valley can’t just be a collection of the greatest minds in the world, there still has to be a much larger class of menial workers whose labour is being exploited to prop up those “great minds”. Such a reality is completely overlooked by this film though and instead Dagny spends all of her time interacting with the “important people”, much like she would have been doing back in the real world anyway. It makes you wonder why these “greatest minds” never get into positions of power in the “real world” of Rand’s fiction, and instead it’s always the unworthy. That seems to be something that people overlook.



It’s also worth noting the demographics of the people in the valley. I went in figuring that it was probably going to be mostly white men, but I was surprised to see that, in the crowded scenes in the valley, there was almost a 50-50 split between men and women. It only occurred to me during the writing of this retrospective that that might be because these women are mostly the wives of the great minds, but I’ll stick with my charitable first impression and assume that they at least gave women some consideration for their achievements. However, I can’t say that I saw anyone who wasn’t white and am not surprised about that little revelation at all. Can you imagine the filmmakers even thinking to diversify their extras to avoid troubling implications? Funnily enough though, at the very end of the film, the franchise’s only notable minority character, Eddie, is apparently rescued by Galt’s followers. His makes him not only the token black guy of the franchise, but the token black guy of Galt’s movement too, how fortunate! Even funnier is the fact that I found out that Eddie was changed into a black character for Part I and that this change was maintained in each subsequent film. Considering that characters change drastically in the franchise (including other race-swapped characters reverting to their whiteness from the book) and that Eddie’s rescue at the end changes him into someone who is deemed “worthy” to come to the valley, this suggests that Eddie was literally changed in order to make him their token black guy to avoid claims of racism. After all, they couldn’t possibly be racist for implying that only whites are the greatest minds in world and the only people worthy of success, and that therefore all other races have no right to a living unless they earn it! But who knows, maybe I just missed out on deleted scenes where there were a ton of black people in the valley who were off in Akston’s farm picking cotton or something…


 

And so finally we come to the most insane scene in the entire movie. You know how I said that Akston claiming that it’s not moral to say that people have a fundamental right to a living only might be the most offensive moment in the whole series? That’s only a might because this scene may actually be even worse, somehow. It comes when Dagny breaks into the government’s torture facility in order to free John Galt. She comes across a lone guard and corners him with a gun. The guard seems confused about the whole situation so Dagny gives him to the count of three to choose: get out of the way, or die. Instead of just running away like a normal human being, this complete fucking idiot starts going on a panicked rant about how he’s not supposed to make decisions and just stands there!!! Seriously, as Dagny is counting down, he literally says “I’m just an average guy, I’m not supposed to make decisions about my life! I haven’t said I will, I haven’t said I won’t!” And then she fucking shoots him to death!!!!!! HOLY SHIT, MOVIE!!!!!!!!! We’re clearly not meant to sympathize with this cartoonish buffoon of a character, hell we’re meant to give him our outright scorn. The line about being an “average guy” is pretty telling too – this is what the filmmakers believe that most people are like and this is the level of sympathy that “great people” should give to anyone who gets in their way. This is just offensive on so many levels, not least of all that this “character” doesn’t resemble an actual human being in the slightest and that it marks the moment where we’re supposed to congratulate Dagny for finally shedding her notion of conventional morality. Fuck. This. Movie.

Having learned more about Objectivism from watching these movies and researching Rand’s philosophy for these reviews, I must say that it’s a strange ideology to cling to. This story always lifts up the inherently superior “great minds” that apparently push our society forward, but they have little basis in reality. These great minds are always portrayed as being the heads of companies, but that’s rarely the case now is it? Modern companies are governed by complex structures which might steer the direction of the company, but they rarely are the source of innovation, not to mention that it’s questionable whether they deserve to make dozens, if not hundreds, of times more annual salary than the people who actually work on the frontlines of their business. We’ve seen just how alien the world of these three films is and how cartoonishly black and white it has to make the world if it wants Objectivism to make any sort of sense. If anything, in a modern context Galt’s strike sounds like a call for workers to rise up against the bourgeois, a notion which Rand would have considered repugnant. The only real aspect of Objectivism which seems to have any real basis is the desire to not be forced into doing anything, but that’s hardly a strong enough idea to cling a whole ideology off of. If anything, the deregulation that they have wanted so badly just seems to turn their closest analogues of “great minds” into something closer to the manipulators and moochers that they despise so much.


Part III is easily one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. The politics and philosophy are bad, with some of the most sincerely offensive messages I have ever witnessed in a film (and this is coming from someone who only slept through half of Triumph of the Will). However, for the most part, these elements aren’t significantly worse than they were in the previous two films, just more repetitive and long-winded if anything. What really makes Part III into a trainwreck is the bafflingly shoddy craftsmanship on display from start to finish. It just permeates throughout every element of the movie, turning otherwise-banal moments into comedic bits. It’s almost as if The Room was trying to be a political thriller, that’s the level of ineptitude that this film rises to. As a result, while it is a truly horrendous film, it reaches a level of badness so far beyond the previous two entries in the franchise that it becomes an experience unto itself. Like, I’ve already recommended this film to a few friends who like bad movies, just because it does manage to hit that special level of crap. So, while it fails in pretty much every intended regard, at least Aglialoro finally managed to make a film that someone might actually get some enjoyment out of.

But seriously, fuck this franchise and the people who made it.


1/10


And now that we’re through the Atlas Shrugged retrospective, it’s time to rank the films from best to worst!


1. Atlas Shrugged – Part II – 3/10 (I had a reeeeally hard time picking between this and Part I, but I ultimately gave Part II the edge because at least Dagny comes across as a good character, even if it wasn’t in the way they actually intended.)

2. Atlas Shrugged – Part I – 3/10 (Again, it’s basically a toss-up – do you like your films boring or offensive?)
3. Atlas Shrugged Part III – Who Is John Galt? – 1/10 (While it is by far the worst film in the series, it is also the only one I would actually recommend, because it’s so bad that it’s an experience.)
Please follow and like us:

Retrospective: Atlas Shrugged – Part II (2012)

Welcome back to part two of the Atlas Shrugged retrospective! In today’s post we’re going to be looking at the second entry in this “series”, Atlas Shrugged: Part II. After a dull, cheap and morally-objectionable first chapter, could the producers finally get the quality adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel that they so desperately wanted? Read on to find out…

Oh, and like the last entry, if you’re looking to read a review of the film from someone who has read the book, check out Matt’s review at The M as well!

Certainly a more interesting poster than the first film, conveys a more epic and grandiose scale than the cute little clip art graphic the first one had.

PRODUCTION
After Atlas Shrugged: Part I‘s release, the producers went about planning Part II. However, the free market rejected the first Atlas Shrugged film and it failed to turn a profit, the producers were forced to find other avenues in order to finance a sequel. Funding took until the start of February of 2012, when a private debt sale was conducted which raised $16 million dollars for the film (presumably this was debt owned by John Aglialoro himself and perhaps other members of the production team). With financing complete, pre-production could wrap up and the film would begin shooting in April of 2012.

While the producers handwaved much of the criticism of the first film as being ideologically-motivated, they did acknowledge that the first film was not as good as they would have liked and proceeded to do a clean sweep of the cast and crew. Given the rushed production schedule of the first film, none of the cast had been negotiated to return for Part II anyway… which was probably the biggest break for Taylor Schilling ever, as she instead landed major roles in The Lucky One and freaking Argo, before going on to take the lead role in Orange is the New Black! Suffice to say, she dodged a bullet by not shackling herself to Atlas Shrugged sequels.

For the principal cast, veteran actress Samantha Mathis was cast as Dagny, former Scientologist Jason Beghe was cast as Hank Rearden, Timothy Olyphant look-alike Esai Morales was cast as Francisco d’Antonia and Patrick Fabian was cast as James Taggart (not a DOA vertan? Boooo!!!). Also worth noting is that Retrospectives veteran Ray Wise makes a cameo appearance as the freaking President of the United States! Once again, he’s probably the best actor in the whole damn film, but considering that he’s in this and God’s Not Dead 2, it makes me seriously wonder what the man’s political affiliations are. Unfortunately, The Atlas Society founder David Kelley admitted up-front that the producers were planning on once again recasting everyone in the film for Part III. This was an absolutely bone-headed idea in my opinion, since they had more time and money to negotiate with the actors this time around to prevent this from happening again. Kelley tried to play it off, saying that “in the end, the central character of the films is the world Rand created. In notes she made while writing the novel, she made the arresting assertion that the focus was to be about the world, not about the characters as individuals”, which is just baffling when put in the context of the importance of individualism in Objectivist philosophy. The producers decided to gamble on the idea that the story of Atlas Shrugged would hold up even if the cast changed every time, and that the change of actors each time might even put more focus on the world.

The film was shot over the course of 31 days, slightly more than Part I. A number of activists in libertarian and right-wing bubbles made cameos in the film, including Sean Hannity. The production started taking on a evangelistic atmosphere, with the entire cast and crew being incentivized through a reward points system to read Rand’s works, as if to turn them into disciples of Objectivism rather than just employees. The producers aimed to release the film in October of 2012, giving them up to five months of post-production and marketing. Their hope was that the film’s release would have an effect on the 2012 presidential election between Obama and Mitt Romney, which was already being coloured by discussions of wealth disparity due to Occupy Wall Street and with the Great Recession still fresh in everyone’s minds. These events felt very relevant to Aglialoro, who stated that “We’ve got generations of people on welfare. That’s not because there weren’t job opportunities, or education, or anything like that. We’ve got a problem of greed on the level of the entitlement class. Not the producers and the entrepreneurs that are creating the tax revenue. They’re the 53 percent. If we get to the tipping point, 57, 58 percent, then you’re going to see people saying: How do I go on strike?” …yeah, Aglialoro believed that 47% of Americans were just unwilling to work. It shouldn’t be too surprising considering that the man had spent almost 20 years trying to get this book onto screen, but Aglialoro clearly considers himself a Randian hero and shares their awful philosophies – he’s the CEO of Cybex (a fitness equipment company), mayor of a tiny golf-course community in Tavistock, New Jersey, and now a wannabe screenwriter and movie producer who clearly isn’t hurting as he was able to scrounge up a good deal of the $16 million which financed this movie himself. Poor John Aglialoro, he must be practically destitute from all the leechers who have robbed him of his fortunes…

Anyway, in hopes of not repeating the first film’s box office failure, the marketing budget for Part II was significantly increased to $10 million. Approximately $1 million of this was raised by The Atlas Society as part of “The Atlas Campaign”, which would promote the film trilogy and Objectivism in general through movie premieres and student outreach programs (blehhhhh), among other things. This was quite laughable as Rand famously hated altruism. Considering that the first film had failed to support itself, by the very philosophy they were promoting, they should have realized that they were being self-defeating by having to rely on donations to promote the film. Not that this has stopped the two major Objectivist organizations, The Atlas Society or The Ayn Rand Institute, both of which rely on donations in order to operate. The absolute best part is that The Atlas Campaign incentivized bigger donations with arbitrary “donation levels”, so you could feel secure in your $5000 donation knowing that you were now officially “John Galt”, hero of donations.

No, we’re laughing with you. Also, there will be no refunds.

Part II was not screened for critics, as John Aglialoro questioned “the integrity of the critics” presumably because they didn’t give it a fair shake and must have conspired to bring down Part I and bring about its failure. Part II was instead screened for conservative and libertarian groups before its wide release. The film opened on more than 1,000 screens, more than twice as many as the first film did. However, despite having a much wider release and more money put into marketing, the film only made $1.7 million on its opening weekend, barely surpassing Part I and earning it the distinction of having one of the worst wide-openings in recent memory. Its numbers then dropped precipitously, bringing in less than $3.5 million by the end of its theatrical run, even less than the first film did and on a larger budget too.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
The film opens in media res with Dagny in a high-speed jet pursuit. When the jet she’s following seems to vanish into Wakanda in front of her eyes she desperately asks “Who is John Galt?” before the screen fades to black. The plot then flashes back nine months earlier as Dagny secretly works with scientists to try to figure out how to get the engine she discovered at the Twentieth Century Motor Company working. She finds a scientist called Quentin Daniels who agrees to try to work with it, since it would provide unlimited power and revolutionize the world if it could be made functional. However, he acknowledges that they might need to get the person who built it in the first place because Daniels doubts his own abilities.

Meanwhile, James Taggart meets a store clerk named Cherryl Brooks one day and decides to take her on a date after she compliments him. They apparently hit it off, because next thing we know, they’re getting married. Francisco d’Anconia crashes the wedding when he goes on a rant about the value of money and then secretly informs Hank Rearden that there are going to be explosions at his copper mines the next day. Hank then continues his affair with Dagny, but is confronted by his wife Lillian who refuses to accept a divorce from him because she doesn’t want to lose the life she has built with Hank.

Later, Hank acts in defiance of the Fair Share law by selling additional Rearden Metal to Ken Danagger’s coal mining company, since they need each other’s support in order to stay operational. He also refuses to sell any Rearden metal to the government. These actions cause both men to be charged under the Fair Share law, but Danagger disappears like many of the other “men of talent” have been for years after Dagny confronts him. Hank then manages to get the public on his side by extolling the virtues of pursuing profit, which causes the court to only fine him rather than making him a martyr. With Taggart Transcontinental’s profits shrinking, the railroad is forced to dismantle the John Galt Line, as Ellis Wyatt’s disappearance has made it irrelevant.

The government then enacts Directive 10-289, which basically attempts to freeze the economy in place by not allowing anyone to leave their jobs and forcing them to spend the same amount of money every year, among other insane demands. The directive also forces everyone to hand over all patents to the government. Hank once again refuses to hand over Rearden metal, but relents when he is blackmailed with photos of his affair with Dagny, choosing not to have her reputation besmirched. When Dagny finds out that he has handed over his patents, she quits Taggart Transcontinental. However, her absence leads to a major disaster after two trains collide and collapse a mountain tunnel, and she comes back to clean up the mess. Along the way, she meets a former engineer from the Twentieth Century Motor Company who reveals that John Galt was a former co-worker of his who vowed to “stop the motor of the world” after the company enacted a communist-like pay structure. Dagny then calls Daniels to check in on his progress with the motor, but realizes that he has been confronted by John Galt and is going to disappear. She buys an airplane to try to intercept him, finding him escaping on a plane as she comes in to land.

The film then picks up where it opened as Dagny’s plane crashes in a hidden valley. Dagny escapes the wreckage and is greeted by John Galt.

I’ll get to it in detail later, but man, look at how awkward that arch is! It almost distracts you away from the obvious matte painting!

REVIEW
In nearly every way, Atlas Shrugged: Part II feels completely different from Part I, to the point where you could be forgiven for not realizing that this is a direct follow-up to Part I. Literally the only visual reference point which is shared by both films is that a shot of Graham Beckel as Ellis Wyatt is shown to reference the character’s disappearance. However, this just draws even more attention to the fact that the rest of the cast has been replaced and it’s not like Beckel actually appears on-screen either. The completely overhauled cast is probably the most obvious sign of the changes between Part I and Part II, but nearly every aspect of the film feels completely different. Whereas Part I opens with stock news footage and a high school film student-level train crash, Part II opens with melodramatic music and a high speed jet pursuit, complete with PS2-quality CGI. While Paul Johansson’s direction in Part I feels static and workmanlike (perhaps to try to draw attention away from the cheap sets), John Putch’s direction in Part II moves the camera all over the place and tries to show off the larger spaces and bigger sets they’re working with. These larger sets also look completely unlike their previously-established locations in the first film, necessitating that every location we’ve already visited in Part I be completely reintroduced to the audience (not to mention that even key props, such as the prototype motor, look nothing like they did before). Part I was also very dull throughout, whereas Part II makes a conscious effort to throw in action sequences to break up all the discussions of politics and economics.

As I’ve already alluded to, John Putch’s direction is much different than Paul Johansson’s was. Some of this comes down to a difference in vision, ambition and talent. Sure, John Putch is best known for the fourth direct-to-DVD American Pie spin-off, The Book of Love, but it’s still a step up from Johansson’s 14 episodes of One Tree Hill (truly, these are the levels of talent worthy of handling a production like Atlas Shrugged). It’s also worth noting that with the additional pre-production time and increased budget, the production values have increased substantially. It’s really a night-and-day difference – compare the pathetic office hallway green screen I made fun of in Part I that is supposed to be the Rearden Steel building to the larger, more majestic factory floor we see in Part II and there’s really no comparison. If anything, this film makes Part I feel even worse in retrospect. Putch also plays up the sci-fi elements of the source material which had been neglected in the first film (again, because that movie was cheap as hell). Within the first few minutes, we have hi-tech jets, holograms, fancy gadgets and neon lighting suggesting a more futuristic tone to the film which was practically absent before.

However, while the directing and production have improved, that’s not to say that they’re necessarily “good”. In some ways, the ambition to make Part II bigger and better backfires, because I laughed at this film waaaay more than I did with Part I. On the directing side, there are still some baffling choices, such as when a panel of Taggart Transcontinental board members we’ve never met before and won’t see again are introduced by way of electronic music, slow-mo Reservoir Dogs-style walking and then a text overlay after like 10 seconds that says “Emergency Board Meeting”… why the hell does this even exist? Why did they not just cut into the board meeting and let context clues and dialogue do the rest? There’s also a moment where the direction turns what is supposed to be an intense action scene into accidental comedy. When there’s an explosion in the Rearden Steel factory and someone gets hurt, Hank rushes down to help and drag him away… while a guy who’s literally on fire runs by into the background. I assume that the filmmakers wanted to make the scene more exciting and dramatic, so they threw that guy in because they have seen it in other movies and thought it was cool, but man, it unintentionally makes Hank look like an asshole (…well, okay, more of an asshole) for not caring about this flaming employee. It’s almost like something out of The Naked Gun, but meant to be entirely serious.

This screenshot makes it look like Hank is concerned about this flaming employee, but no, he’s actually just yelling at everyone else in the factory and telling them what to do about the ore leak. I don’t need to make shit up to have a laugh at this movie’s expense.

Greater ambition and attempts to make the story more exciting also meant that Part II needed more special effects work. However, it’s possibly the worst CGI I have ever seen in a film, especially when you consider that it was made for over $10 million!!! On the one hand, we have the two biggest action sequences of the film, the train crash and the jet pursuit, which look like they’re rendered with PS2-quality graphics. Seriously, the jet chase looks like an Ace Combat replay, or (if you’re being generous) the most boring episode of Dogfights. However, these are intercut with really unconvincing shots of Dagny in the cockpit which are both horribly acted and inconsistent with the speed and movement of the planes during the CGI shots. Worst of all though are the awful clip-art quality explosions when Francisco blows up his mines, including obviously freezing the stock footage of the mine so that it looks like the trucks driving there are reacting to the explosions (instead of slowing them down, they just suddenly stop, making this incredibly obvious). This is the sort of thing that wouldn’t look out of place in Birdemic. Seriously, if you don’t believe me, check out this short clip and laugh along (but be warned if you’re on mobile, it’s a pretty big .gif file). Hell, even the matte painting of the bridge from the first film looks worse here (seen above the review heading if you’re curious). It looks very unnatural and even changes slightly between shots. It’s really too bad because, for the most part, Part II is a much better looking film than its predecessor but it’s filled with so many bad special effects that it’s incredibly distracting.

The film also really struggles to fill out its two hour runtime, especially when it’s the middle portion of a book that has been split into three parts. There’s just so much wheel-spinning in this film to fill out the runtime. There’s so much fat that should have been excised: scenes get repeated (such as all the times that the government tries to take Hank’s patents and he rants at them), or exist only to preach to the audience (James Taggart’s wedding is a prime example of this, it doesn’t move the plot forward at all, it just provides an excuse to ham-fistedly shove in some Objectivist ideology). After Part I I thought that they might have been able to pull off Atlas Shrugged as a two-part story rather than a trilogy, but after seeing this film I’m confident that you could easily make it into one film. Just condense these first two films into a very lean and dense 30-40 minutes and then have Part III fill out the rest. If you have to spend entire scenes doing nothing but preaching your points to the audience, then you’re not doing a very good job of conveying your message. It’s kind of like how the Twilight and 50 Shades movies were such slogs because they were too faithful to the source material, not wanting to change or take out any of the boring bullshit to make for a more entertaining film.

Then there’s the big cast overhaul, which is great low-hanging fruit to make fun of this film’s production, but makes for some interesting analysis in a retrospective. In Part I, Taylor Schilling’s Dagny was youthful, driven and confident with a take-no-shit attitude whenever people tried to boss her around. Samantha Mathis’ Dagny is completely different in Part II. For one thing, Mathis is older than Schilling by 15 years (seriously, there are no attempts at consistency between these films)! Mathis plays Dagny as someone who is desperate and weary, someone who is trying to keep improving the world while everything is going to hell around her. For this, I actually kind of prefer Mathis’ portrayal of the character, but her line deliveries are really bad sometimes. Her acting in the jet pursuit is particularly embarrassing. However, she’s more of an active, driving character in this film – she’s trying to solve the reason behind the disappearances and comes across as trying to improve the world instead of just being profit-driven. She’s more of an “actions, not words” character in this film and these traits make her far easier to like, even if the acting isn’t always up to snuff.

In Part I, Grant Bowler’s Hank Rearden was professional, warm and even somewhat classy, someone who would do what was necessary even if he didn’t exactly like it. I found him fairly likeable whenever he wasn’t spouting off anti-altruistism bullshit. However, holy shit I hated Jason Beghe’s Hank so much in Part II. Beghe’s Rearden is a smug, know-it-all piece of shit, like everyone’s annoying uncle who won’t shut the hell up at family gatherings when he starts talking about politics. He’s like the worst version of the American “hero” archetype – individualistic, unyielding, disdainful of authority, sure of himself, etc. It feels like every single scene with this character has to reiterate that he’s this totally awesome badass that we all should wish that we were like, except that the filmmakers don’t realize that they’ve accidentally made him into an unlikeable arsewipe. We get three separate scenes of Rearden intimidating government representatives who come into his office, calling them “looters” and lording his rhetorical superiority over them. These scenes don’t really reiterate anything new, and it’s not like we didn’t already get scenes just like this in Part I. The only real difference is that, in the last scene like this, Hank finally relents when the government threatens to blackmail him over his affair with Dagny in order to ruin her reputation. There’s also a scene where his wife, Lillian, she confronts him about his affair with Dagny. In this scene, Lillian decides to let him continue having the affair, but only because Hank wields so much power over her that she can’t really do anything about it without losing her home and the life that she has built with him. The fact that we’re supposed to see this as a flaw in Lillian rather than Hank being a monster is unbelievable.

The absolute worst example though is in the film’s centrepiece scene, when Hank goes on trial for violating the Fair Share law. His opening defence is “I do not recognize this court’s right to try me, nor do I recognize any of my actions as a crime”… goddammit Hank, you absolute idiot, you basically just acknowledged guilt in front of the court. He comes across like one of those insufferable sovereign citizens and, if there was any true justice in this film, the court would have prosecuted him then and there. Then, in order to remind us how much of a badass Hank is, he tells the court that they’re going to have to send armed men to get him because he won’t be arrested voluntarily. When he then says that the court is stealing his liberty, the entire gallery applauds him!!! Apparently that was enough to get them onto his side, because according to this film, the common man secretly agrees with the ideals of Objectivism. Anyway, Rearden then reiterates that all he cares about is making money: “I do not recognize the good of others as a justification for my existence. If their fair share demands that I get nothing for my labours, that it requires me to be a victim, then I say public good be damned. I’ll have no part in it.” …get nothing for your labours? Hank, you’re an insanely rich man living lavishly in the middle of a major recession. You’re not getting nothing for your labours! Again, this guy is being portrayed as the hero, and this is enough to earn the man an enthusiastic standing ovation which forces the court to let him off lightly to avoid turning him into an ideological martyr. Holy shit I hate Hank so much in this film, he single-handedly makes the recasting in this film into a blunder.

Of the other recast characters, the two most important are James Taggart and Francisco d’Anconia. Matthew Marsden’s James in Part I was a smarmy, greasy character (which seems to be Marsden’s modus operandi if DOA is any indication). Patrick Fabian’s James in Part II is just cartoonishly stupid. He constantly seeks public approval, to the point where he marries a Wal-Mart knock-off employee just so he can say that he’s bridging wealth gaps (again, we’re supposed to view this as really bad, both doing it for show and for marrying “beneath” himself). He also ridiculously unqualified for his job – when Dagny temporarily quits Taggart Transcontinental, he promotes a random employee to fill her position because he has no idea how to do it himself… this, of course, leads to an avoidable disaster. Meanwhile, Jsu Garcia’s Francisco in Part I was… there. I dunno, he left absolutely no impression on me. He basically just popped up a couple times as a playboy character who enjoyed messing with people. In Part II, Esai Morales plays Francisco with a very sinister air about him. He almost feels like a villain, although I don’t think that this was intentional since he’s the mouthpiece of a number of Objectivist talking-points (particularly during the wedding scene, which is completely pointless except to provide a platform for Francisco to rant about how greed is actually a good thing). Seriously, in any other movie, this character would be revealed to be the bad guy all along in a third act twist. The other recast characters don’t matter quite as much. Some are less cartoonish than their counterparts in Part I (eg, Lillian, who has been turned into a real MILF), whereas others don’t look anything like their previous incarnation and just get confusing as a result (eg, Eddie was a skinny, somewhat nerdy guy in Part I, but in Part II he’s now played by a Michael Clarke Duncan-looking mofo).

If weird recasting, bad CGI and improved production were all that differentiated Part II from Part I, then this film might have been a little better than the first film. However, there is one very fundamental difference which I haven’t really gone into yet. The biggest difference between the first two parts of Atlas Shrugged is that Part II is way more upfront about its philosophical framework and politics. In Part I, the film demonstrates Randian philosophy primarily through the events of the plot, which made the rare occasions where Hank and Dagny start talking about how they just want to make money and hate altruism kind of jarring. That’s not to say that Part I did a great job of making Objectivism look reasonable, but it trusted that you would draw the conclusions that they wanted you to. Even then, you could potentially look past the Objectivist ideology and look at it on the surface level, as a boring movie about building a railway. The politics weren’t particularly subtle, but they very rarely came out and said the things that they were inferring, such as that the recession was caused by over-regulation (when it was actually primarily caused by deregulation, the exact thing these films advocate for). However, Part II does away with any pretence of subtly. The characters frequently launch into Objectivist rants which aren’t really important to the actual plot and are instead directed at the audience, in a manner similar to how Pure Flix movies bluntly preach to their viewers to reaffirm their beliefs. It feels very similar to the evolution that occurred between God’s Not Dead andGod’s Not Dead 2, including the fact that both that film and Part II had their political didacticism ratcheted up in an attempt to influence a presidential election. It’s also worth noting that, like God’s Not Dead 2, Part II features a number of right-wing celebrity cameos (most notably Sean Hannity) who show up to reaffirm the ideology of the main characters. This is an obvious tactic to reach for figures that the audience may be familiar with and trust, then have them verbally agree with the characters in an attempt to have the audience then have a positive view of Objectivism.

One of the main messages of the film is that the government is straight-up evil. They exist only to screw with the main characters’ abilities to produce goods and services, which is always portrayed as something which is ultimately ineffectual and just makes things worse. The “good” principles of government programs are also shown to be shams throughout the film. After Hank violates the Fair Share law, which is supposed to be a measure to help keep businesses from growing too powerful and overwhelming the industry, the film even has a government figure outright state to Hank that: “That’s what laws are for Mr. Rearden. If the right people don’t break them, they’re of no use whatsoever.” The implication here of course is that laws are all made to benefit the government in some way, so therefore maximum deregulation is the best policy. According to The Atlas Society, one of the themes of Atlas Shrugged is that fascism comes dressed in finery through these laws which state that they’re for the “public good”. The film also states that science is basically just a tool that the government uses to manipulate the public. According to Quentin, a government employee who works outside the system to help Dagny get the prototype motor running, the State Science Institute doesn’t perform any real science at all, it’s just propaganda. This is particularly rich considering that the biggest businesses are notorious for publishing fake studies to obfuscate the real science about their industries in order to maximize their profits for as long as possible.

While the film tries to show that regulation is bad, the actual laws which show up in the film are really questionable and don’t reflect reality. I get that Ayn Rand grew up in Soviet Russia and was strongly opposed to communism as a result of this upbringing. Her anti-communist stance really shows in the film (and presumably the novel as well). In addition to the communist laws in the film, it is revealed that the whole beginning of “The Strike” began when John Galt’s former employer, the Twentieth Century Motor Corporation, adopted an explicitly-communist pay structure. This is clearly meant to be a microcosm for America at large and the fact that it provided the seed from which Galt’s strike began is worth noting. However, here’s the thing – America is not communist. In fact, it’s so afraid of the word “socialism” that its citizens lack several social programs that people in developed countries take for granted and can be financially ruined because of this irrational phobia. So, when libertarians and big businesses recoil at the idea of any sort of regulation or social program which would literally be done for the good of the public, it gets shot down for being a path into “tyrannical government overreach”. The fact that Atlas Shrugged has to invent a whole national emergency and several strange laws in order to even justify its plot should be pretty telling that this film should not be applied to real life.

The Fair Share law, which was introduced in the previous film, is just strange. It goes beyond a reasonable monopoly-prevention law and into something which is just transparently stupid. According to this law, producers must supply goods equally to all customers… why??? I think that this is one of those communism parallels Rand was drawing, but it makes absolutely no sense as an economic policy outside of a staunchly ideological system. This whole idea is just inefficient and ignores the idea of supply and demand, not to mention that it might be less sensible to supply customers if they’re further away. Sure, it’ll stop big businesses from leveraging their economic strength and hoover up all the resources, but they could just set a regulation for that. Why go that next step and make it so that everyone has to have the same amount of resources? That’s just idiotic. Again, this isn’t the sort of law which would come about unless lawmakers were staunchly ideological and isn’t even the sort of thing that comes about in socialist countries, let alone America.

Things go truly off the rails when the government introduces Directive 10-289, which is probably the most batshit insane law that people actually believe will happen. The basic idea is that the economy is in such a tailspin that the government institutes regulations to freeze it in place and prevent any further downturn… but holy shit, the way that they go about it is so obviously stupid that it could never, ever happen. Like, it is so stupid that I have to go through it point-by-point to show how paper-thin this idea is:
  • No one is allowed to quit or change their jobs. Geez, I sure hope no one dies, that would be really inconvenient for the workforce and would inevitably drain the economy by itself. Are you even allowed to hire new employees to replace them? It also sure would suck if a job became redundant… Oh and what about contract employees? This is literally the first point of this law and already it’s too stupid to be truly comprehended.
  • No business can cease operations and no owner is allowed to quit, retire or sell their business. I assume this was done in response to the strike and the mass disappearances, but it isn’t exactly going to matter because they just disappear anyway. It’s not like they had to ask for permission before vanishing. And for that matter, what do all the employees do when their bosses disappear and they’re expected to continue to comply with Directive 10-289? Again, what happens when a business was failing or becomes redundant?
  • Businesses must hand over all patents, copyrights and inventions to the government. This just seems like one of those “the government is evil and is just trying to consolidate power” ideas. I mean, what are they really going to do with these unless they’re planning on nationalizing all industry? In this film at least, that isn’t specified.
  • No new inventions or products can be added to the market, starting now. WHAT!?!!! Okay, the preceding ideas were all stupid, but this one really puts this over the top into unthinkably idiotic. I get that you’re trying to keep the economy from collapsing, but is preventing any sort of social advancement really the best answer??? You don’t think that maybe having industry attempt to solve problems in society is a good idea? Holy shit, this movie. Again, people think that this is something that could actually happen!!!
  • Businesses must produce the same amount of goods as they did the previous year. Again, this completely ignores the notion of supply and demand. What about seasonal businesses like farms where they can’t reliably make the same amount of products year-on-year? What about the businesses whose owners disappeared as a result of John Galt’s strike and now can’t produce any more? What about mines which run out of resources? My brain can’t take any more of this lunacy, but it just keeps going!!!
  • Everyone must spend the exact same amount of money as they did in the previous year. FUCKING WHAT!??!!! I think that this law just broke through the floor of what I thought was the bottom threshold for stupidity. This makes no sense, whatsoever. So, what, if you had to take out loans because you were paying for school, suddenly you have to continue taking out loans and drive yourself deeper into debt (thereby eventually wiping out the economy regardless when everyone defaults)? Or what about people who’ve been saving money for a house, now all of a sudden they can’t spend that money to prop up the housing industry and just have to continue putting money in the bank, out of circulation? Hell, for that matter, what happens if you did buy a house last year and now are expected to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per year!?!
  • All wages are frozen at their current levels and cannot be changed (although taxes on these wages can be increased). Bloody hell. The taxes thing straight-up contradicts the idea of an economic freeze and “must spend the same amount as last year” from above, but that’s just obvious. Instituting that no one is allowed to earn any more or less is just the cherry on top of this shit sundae. Let me re-iterate this again: Objectivists think that this is the logical end result of wanting governments to regulate businesses!!!!!!
As the specifics of Directive 10-289 show, this film’s plot starts becoming insulting to the intelligence of its audience, having to contrive impossible scenarios to make its ideology seem even somewhat logical. I mean, Part I had a hard enough time justifying Objectivism, but Part II makes it impossible for these so-called “rational minds” to claim this could ever happen. This might just be at its most cringe-inducing during Francisco d’Anconia’s big “money speech” during James Taggart’s wedding, an event which has no real importance on the story other than to allow d’Anconia to go on his rant and preach to the audience. In the novel, this speech goes on for literally 20 minutes worth of pages, but the film manages to boil it down into just a couple minutes. Here’s the first part:

(After someone says that d’Anconia is proof that money is the root of all evil after being a dick at Jame’s wedding.) D’Anconia: “Oh so you think money’s the root of all evil? Have you ever asked yourself ‘What’s the root of money?’ Money is a tool that allows us to trade with one another. Your goods for mine. Your efforts for mine. The keystone of civilization. Having money is not the measure of a man. What matters is how he got it. If he produced it by creating value, then his money is a token of honour. But if he’s taken it from those who produce, then there is no honour. Then you’re simply a looter.”

Let’s break this down a little bit. D’Anconia immediately annoys me with his “umm, actually” moment where he apparently needs to explain the basics of money to a room full of wealthy people. Either the filmmakers believe that everyone else is so stupid that they haven’t even thought of this, or (worse) they think that their audience is. However, then he states that money does not make you evil, what does is how it is acquired. That’s right, it doesn’t matter if you use that money immorally, if you earned it the “right” way then it’s your prerogative to use it however you please! According to d’Anconia, the only honourable way to make money is to “create value”, otherwise you’re a dishonourable “looter”. These distinctions are, obviously, fairly arbitrary when applied to the real world. For example, I don’t think that anyone would argue that farmers don’t create value, but their businesses are often propped up by government subsidies, meaning that they are doing both. Or what about basically every major corporation – they create some sort of value with their products, but also build up their profit margins by engaging in lobbying, shady deals, offshore accounts, subsidies, strong-arming municipal governments to give them unfair tax breaks, financial bailouts, etc. Even if Objectivists tried to argue that these companies are exercising “pull”, that’s not because of regulation – it’s because of massive deregulation, the sort of shit that Rand would soak her panties to get more of. Objectivists might also argue that the government is making a value-for-value exchange, since securing the output of the farms is so important… but then that just begs the question of what is the point of this ideology if it can’t be applied to the real world? Reality isn’t a cartoonishly black-and-white Randian fairy tale like it is in this film.

This idea that looters are just evil is also heartless, as there are those in society who rely on “taking from those who produce” in order to survive (eg, the old and infirm, mentally ill, freaking children, etc) and those who need to in order to help keep this society intact at all (eg, stay at home parents). Either way, d’Anconia isn’t refuting the point about money being the root of all evil, he’s just redefining evil in a way he sees fit and which paints him as the good guy and we’re meant to see him as Very Smart for doing this. Naturally, no one really picks away at his logic, we just get one woman piping up who says that “money is made by the strong at the expense of the weak”. To this, d’Anconia replies:

“What kind of strength are you talking about? The power to create value? Or the ability to manipulate, to extort money in back room deals, to exercise pull? When money ceases to be the tool by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of men. Blood, whips, chains or dollars. Take your choice. There is no other. And your time is running out.”

Uhh, Frankie-boy, you didn’t address her question at all there. Is he implying that “value creators” don’t exploit other people? Or that their power to create value is totally justified and that everyone who says that they’re exploiting people is just jealous and wants a piece of it? In fact, it seems like he’s practically admitting this and justifying it by the logic that the free market keeps it under control, because he then says that when “pull” gets involved then men will be literally enslaving one another. That’s right, d’Anconia believes that government regulations are akin to fucking slavery!!! Holy shit!!! He then pompously states that people have to pick between the free market or slavery… and no one even argues with him about any of this! Again, this is a film about arguing at the audience, it doesn’t want any real rebuttals that it’s leaving itself wide open to. So what was the sum of this apparently-monumental “money speech”? Not much, if we’re being honest. D’Anconia steps up to the plate to prove that greed is good, then completely redirects the issue so that it fits into his own flimsy definitions of good and evil. Maybe it’s just a byproduct of cutting down a lengthy speech to its fundamentals, but that just leads to another issue. A 20 minute speech in this film would be absolutely insane, but when you condense it all down to a handful of lines it reveals just how superfluous the whole scene is, that this is a philosophical rant rather than an actual character or narrative moment. So, by the necessity of needing to give d’Anconia’s speech brevity, they’ve also basically rendered one of the biggest moments in the novel pointless within the narrative. It would be like if The Lost World: Jurassic Park decided to keep all of Ian Malcolm’s rants about evolution from the books in the film for the sake of faithfulness to the novel, despite it having basically no importance on the adaptation.

This all brings us to the last point I want to get to in this film. D’Anconia defends “value creators”, saying that they deserve their money and playing down the idea that they may exploit their workers. This film is just full of moments where this is just shown to be bullshit though, either through the characters inadvertently being complete dicks or through the narrative implying that most of humanity is worthless. The film opens with references to the Occupy movement, with protesters outside of Taggart Transcontinental asking for a fair share of the riches that these people still have. This is a reminder that this film is taking place in the middle of a crippling recession where the prices of goods are astronomically inflated and gas is so expensive that only the super rich can drive. The film wants us to believe that these protesters are in the wrong, but it’s hard to sympathize with the heroes when we get a whole scene where Dagny is seen driving a car, spending $865 on a tank of gas, then running off to buy a private plane! “Oh boo hoo, everyone’s out to get me, it’s not fair!” And then we get Ken Danagger, the owner of a coal mine, who claims that he fought for every piece of coal he pulled out of the ground… but he didn’t really, did he? He just owns the mine, he pays other people to do it for him, presumably with money that he received from investors to get this entire enterprise up off of the ground. Could we not say that he is the looter by a certain definition? The only thing that gives him the power here is that he happened to be the one who lucked into the ownership of this mine – all the investors and deals worked in his favour and he happened to acquire ownership of land. Literally anyone could have done this if circumstances had gone their way, but Danagger believes that he’s an innately superior and smarter person when he says that the only thing that he has left worth fighting for is his mind. The whole title of the novel comes from a conversation d’Anconia has with Hank, where he asks what he would tell Atlas to do if he saw him struggling to hold up the world. D’Anconia says that he would tell Atlas to shrug, meaning that the people like Danagger, Hank, d’Anconia and Dagny who are “holding the world up” don’t owe the world anything and shouldn’t care about what happens to everyone else – again, these people are just dicks who don’t have any faith in other people. This bleak view of humanity is seen throughout the film in snippets. One example is that Quentin doesn’t believe that anyone could figure out how to complete the prototype engine because it’s so revolutionary, but when he does figure it out that’s when John Galt whisks him away (this ignores that, most of the time, technological advances and “value” are created through incremental updates rather than unprecedented changes). Hell, there’s also a rather ridiculous moment where it’s revealed that Wyatt Ellis’ oil fields are still burning nine months later because there is no one left who is smart enough to put out the fire… man, John Galt was really thorough going through all the skills, trades, arts and firefighters to get the most competent minds, wasn’t he? Presumably he plundered all the sexiest bachelorette firefighters while he was at it.

Here’s the thing though – if all the rich people ran off with their toys to show us who’s in charge, their roles would be replaced. There’s a big world out there full of people educating themselves and/or waiting for their shot to make a difference, not to mention that there are 194 other countries with their own experts and resources that John Galt can’t just snatch up. Now, if the rich took their wealth with them then there would be issues, but that’s less because we’ve lost all of our shining talents and more because of financial bullying. I mean, try taking away ~90% of the total wealth suddenly and see what happens. That’s more or less what Galt’s “strike” has been – a petulant cry from the rich that they matter more than anyone else and that they’re going to throw their weight around to prove it, even if it means economic and ecological disaster. The filmmakers have tried to defend this by comparing Galt’s actions to those of scientists and businesses who refused to support the burgeoning Third Reich, but that also completely of ignores that Galt helped bring about Fair Share and Directive 10-289 in the first place. After all, when he started his “strike”, it was in response to one group of executives deciding to pay all of their workers by scale, which cased Galt to go on a hissy fit before any sort of recession or government crackdown had begun. It’s implied that the awful state that the US is in came about because of Galt’s actions of taking all of the money-makers out of the economy and having them destroy their resources in the process to prevent them from being utilized. That’s not even taking into account his willingness to subject 99.9% of the population to worse and worse conditions which directly led to several deaths (the numerous derailments that we see in these two films), or that the film’s totalitarian government isn’t representative of real life at all. So no, filmmakers, Galt’s actions make him come across like a whiny kid who refuses to participate if he can’t get his way, unlike Dagny who at least wants to continue working in the system to make things better for everyone.

Atlas Shrugged: Part II is certainly not a good film. In some ways, it’s better than Part I, but the increased emphasis on politics and an immoral ideology squander any attempts to try to improve the series. There’s also the fact that most of this film is just wheel-spinning – for a two hour film, barely anything of importance to the plot actually happens. We only really get one sympathetic character to root for in Dagny, because everyone else are complete assholes. As of the time that I’m writing this, I don’t actually know what happens in Part III, but based on the trajectory this narrative is on, I can’t help but think that that film is going to finally beat down her notion that humanity should be saved and then claim it’s a great outcome, which is just the bleakest conclusion this story could have.

3/10
Be sure to tune in again soon as we take a look at the next entry in this series, Atlas Shrugged Part III: Who Is John Galt?!
Please follow and like us:

Retrospective: Atlas Shrugged – Part I (2011)

Hey it’s the 4th of July people, so what better way to celebrate than with a retrospectives series! Last time we went through a fantastic slasher film and it’s chaotic web of sequels, but I try to shake things up a bit every time. I could easily make every retrospective about laughably bad horror franchises or slasher flicks, but there has been another franchise that I’ve been wanting to dive into for years. That “franchise” would be the Atlas Shrugged trilogy, the production of which was notoriously troubled throughout. Will that make for entertaining viewing, writing and reading? Having not seen any of them at the time of writing this part, I sure as hell hope so!

Also, I’ll be up-front going into this series: I haven’t read any Ayn Rand works. Going into this series, most of my knowledge about her philosophy comes through light research, Bioshock, cultural osmosis and unpleasant encounters with libertarians. While I can’t call myself an expert on Rand or Atlas Shrugged as a text, I can certainly still analyze this film trilogy based on its own merits (in fact, not knowing the book can reveal whether the film requires prior knowledge of it to maintain narrative coherency). That said, as I go on with each subsequent entry in this retrospective, I learn more about her philosophy through watching the films and subsequent research, so keep that in perspective. If you don’t know anything about Objectivism, don’t worry, I’ll try to explain it succinctly as we go along. “Well if you don’t know anything about Rand then how can you review Atlas Shrugged properly!” you may say – luckily for you, I convinced my good friend Matt at The M, who is more familiar with Rand’s philosophy and has read the book, to watch these films with me and come to his own conclusions. Be sure to check out his reviews as well for some contrasting perspectives!

I don’t really know what to say about this poster. It’s fine, but it looks like something you’d see promoting some keynote speaker at a dinner conference rather than a theatrical movie release.

PRODUCTION
After years of modest success as a novelist and screenwriter, Russian-American authour Ayn Rand wrote and published her 1943 novel The Fountainhead to great success. To put it very simply, The Fountainhead dealt with themes of collective societal oppression and stagnation, which stifle creative minds and prevent progress from occurring. The Fountainhead‘s success helped spur philosophical debate about the novel’s themes, providing an early core for Rand’s ideas going forward. Rand herself began taking a greater interest in political activism, campaigning in favour of the free market and against communism. This growing philosophical interest and political activism coalesced in her next novel, 1957’s Atlas Shrugged, a massive, nearly 1,200 page epic which was equal parts narrative and philosophical treatise. The novel explicitly lays out the foundations of Rand’s philosophy which would become known as “Objectivism”.

Before we go any further, it’s important that we get an idea of what Objectivism means. According to the Atlas Society:

“Objectivism holds that there is no greater moral goal than achieving happiness. But one cannot achieve happiness by wish or whim. Fundamentally, it requires rational respect for the facts of reality, including the facts about our human nature and needs. Happiness requires that one live by objective principles, including moral integrity and respect for the rights of others. Politically, Objectivists advocate laissez-faire capitalism. Under capitalism, a strictly limited government protects each person’s rights to life, liberty, and property and forbids that anyone initiate force against anyone else. The heroes of Objectivism are achievers who build businesses, invent technologies, and create art and ideas, depending on their own talents and on trade with other independent people to reach their goals.”

Rand would further develop the philosophy of Objectivism for the rest of her writing career. Perhaps because of this philosophical focus, the novel was not received very well. This is possibly due to the notion that Objectivism can be boiled down to “excuses to continue to be an asshole“. However, the novel found a receptive audience of those who agreed with Rand’s philosophy and found it extremely compelling. The influence of Objectivism upon libertarian and American conservative movements can be felt to this day (even if they don’t necessarily understand her). Naturally, the political and ideological importance that this novel has garnered after its publication would lead libertarians and Objectivist adherents to want to see a film adaptation.

There had been several attempts to adapt Atlas Shrugged into a film or television series, but none came to fruition for one reason or another (including an attempt by Ayn Rand herself, which ended when she died with only a third of the screenplay completed). The roots of the film which would eventually come about began when John Aglialoro bought the film rights for Atlas Shrugged from the Rand estate in 1992. He then started optioning the film to various studios. After a proposed four-hour miniseries with TNT fell through, the project was taken to Lions Gate to be turned into a two-part film series (which was eventually shaved down into one screenplay). Vadim Perelman was going to direct the film and various high-profile actresses were in negotiation for the film, including Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Julia Roberts and Anne Hathaway (according to the Atlas Society, Jolie was likely going to be playing the female lead, Dagny Taggart). As interest in the film fizzled, Lions Gate then started work on a miniseries, but could not come up with an adequate script. After spending nearly $20 million on various Atlas Shrugged projects, Lions Gate scrapped the whole thing in March of 2010 and nothing came to fruition.

All of these false starts left John Aglialoro in a bind. After 18 years of nothing, his rights to the film were set to expire in June of 2010 if he was not filming an adaptation by then. So, in early April with barely two and a half months of pre-production time, Aglialoro and producer Harmon Kaslow threw a production company together, hastily wrote a script, hired the production team and crew, cast the film and got all of their locations sorted out. Many of the crew were fans of Rand’s work and took pay cuts in order to be a part of the film. The cast were largely unknowns or D-list talent, including Taylor Schilling (who would get her big break right after this film by starring in Orange is the New Black) as Dagny Taggart, Grant Bowler as Henry Rearden and Matthew Marsden (from the DOA: Dead or Alive movie!!!) as James Taggart. Stephen Polk was initially hired to direct, but was fired and Paul Johansson was signed on as director just nine days before filming began. Filming began on June 13, just two days before the rights would have reverted to Rand’s estate, and lasted for five weeks on a budget somewhere between $10-20 million dollars (although this number is debated; it might be including all of the costs of the false starts at Lions Gate, because I’ve seen estimates as low as $5 million). However, due to the rushed production, John Agliarloro and Harmon Kaslow weren’t able to afford to negotiate and secure any of their actors to appear in the next two entries in the series, meaning that they would be forced to start fresh and recast when it came time to begin Part II. This rushed schedule may also have been why the film takes place in a near-future setting, despite maintaining the novel’s 1950s trappings, in order to save on production costs.

The film’s release date was set, symbolically, on “tax day“, April 15, 2011 – only a year after production began. The film’s marketing budget was low and promotion was largely done in an evangelizing manner, similar to Christian films. The film was promoted not only by Randian organizations, such as The Atlas Society, but also through political organizations, such as Fox News and the Tea Party movement and its affiliates, explicitly playing up the film’s political status in order to draw interest. One of these affiliates, FreedomWorks, went so far as to try to get the film into more theatres and to promote it at the Conservative Political Action Conference. However, apparently none of this mattered because, despite playing in 465 theatres across the country, the film was a total bomb. It’s opening weekend haul of $1,676,917 was good for the 14th highest gross of the weekend, and it ended up earning less than $5 million by the end of its theatrical run. For whatever reason, the film’s political marketing campaign didn’t translate to a ticket bump as it often does for Christian films.


PLOT SYNOPSIS
The film opens in 2016, with America in a serious economic depression due to intense oil shortages after the Middle East stops supplying the superpower with the oil it needs (this is the last time this bit of context will ever be mentioned, for the record). Further exacerbating matters is catastrophic oil spills and skyrocketing gasoline prices, which cause the rail lines to become the most important transportation method for people and goods. However, the rail lines are in poor repair and there are several derailments on the Taggart Transcontinental railroad after CEO James Taggart tries to get the lines replaced with cheap, shoddy material.

His sister, Dagny Taggart, forcibly takes control of the situation, saying that she’s negotiated a deal with Rearden Steel to replace the tracks with a new metal that has been invented by Hank Rearden, which is supposed to be considerably stronger and lighter than any other metal on the market. Rearden gives a bracelet made of the first batch of Rearden metal to his wife as an anniversary gift, but she and the rest of their family openly mock him for it, while another insults Hank while asking for a $100,000 donation. Meanwhile, James Taggart negotiates a deal with lobbyists to secure Taggart Transcontinental a rail monopoly in Colorado. This angers an oil baron named Ellis Wyatt who is now forced to do business with Taggart, but Dagny assures him that they will provide him with the service that he needs.

While Dagny and Hank are working to get the railroads replaced on time, talented individuals in their companies keep disappearing with their only explanation being a cryptic question: “Who is John Galt?” A former lover of Dagny’s, Francisco d’Anconia, creates further difficulty for Taggart when his copper mines are revealed to be worthless, costing Taggart and various other investors billions of dollars (it is heavily implied that he did this just to screw them over). To make things worse, the State Science Institute reports that they believe that Rearden metal is not safe for public use, a claim which Hank scoffs at. In response to this, Dagny forms her own company in order to finish the rail line and keep the pressure off of Taggart Transcontinental, calling it the “John Galt Line”.

As Dagny and Hank continue working desperately to complete the rail line, even more pressure is put upon them when a new law forces Hank to sell off all but one of his businesses, leaving him only with Rearden Steel to finish the John Galt Line. Despite all this opposition, the John Galt Line is completed ahead of schedule and the first test is wildly successful, setting a new speed record for a locomotive. Wyatt is overjoyed and invites Dagny and Hank to celebrate at his home. Dagny and Hank end up having an affair that night as John Galt confronts Wyatt in secret and convinces him to disappear along with the other men of talent.

The next morning, Dagny and Hank follow-up on a lead that Hank had found about a revolutionary new motor that was developed at the Twentieth Century Motor Corporation but never released, as the company went under before it could be produced. They find the incomplete motor in the abandoned factory and try to track down its inventor. Dagny traces it back to Dr. Hugh Akston, but he is unwilling to reveal the identity of the inventor, saying that the inventor might track her down.

However, a new law is then passed which limits the speed of trains on the John Galt Line and puts a special tax on Colorado. Dagny then discovers that Wyatt’s oil fields are on fire and rushes to the scene. When she arrives, she is distraught by the scene, where she finds a sign left by Wyatt which reads “I am leaving it as I found it. Take over. It’s yours.”


REVIEW
Atlas Shrugged: Part I pulled a number of emotions out of me during its runtime, but unquestionably the most prominent one was soul-crushing boredom. Most of the film boils down to discussions about railway construction and the politics surrounding it. Mind you, that doesn’t have to be boring! The story of the founding of Facebook sounds soul-crushingly dull, but The Social Network made it a gripping drama. And who cares about the story of the franchising of McDonalds? Me, apparently, because The Founder ended up being one of my favourite films of the past decade. Unfortunately, Atlas Shrugged: Part I does very little to make any of this business and politicking engaging for the audience. This is in part because most of the scenes boil down to:

  1. Characters talking about something they’re going to do off-screen (eg, Dagny talking about forming her own company to finish the rail line, Washington lobbyists talking about all the bills they’re going to pass to screw over Rearden Steel, etc).
  2. Characters reacting to something that happened off-screen (every time one of these laws gets passed, the reveal that d’Anconia’s copper mines are worthless, etc).
  3. Exposition dumps (Hank’s speech about the fall of the Twentieth Century Motor Corporation, scenes where someone says “Who is John Galt?”, etc).

As a result of these building blocks, the vast majority of this film feels stuffy and boring. There’s very rarely any sort of payoff, which actually makes the big, triumphant test run of the John Galt Line probably the best scene in the whole film since it’s a rare moment of excitement. Hell, even when Dagny and Hank have sex, they can’t even get down to business until they have first talked about wanting to have sex with each other, holy shit. God forbid we not realize that they’re into each other unless someone explicitly states it first.

Another failed source of tension in the film is the constant setbacks that Dagny and Hank’s efforts encounter, from the laws put in place to oppose them, to the employees being whisked away by John Galt. In a competent film, like The Martian, each setback provides the audience with mounting tension as they wonder how the characters can possibly overcome the obstacles in front of them. In Atlas Shrugged: Part I, the characters… just do it. Like, seriously, there is very rarely any sort of explanation for how or why Dagny and Hank manage to not only overcome all of the impossibly difficult roadblocks that get put in front of them, but also complete the project ahead of schedule. You’re telling me that, despite losing their most talented employees to John Galt, having Rearden Steel’s suppliers get sold off mid-project and having Dagny break off and form her own company from scratch to manage the project (again, in the middle of the process) wouldn’t affect their schedule any? Again, there isn’t really any explanation for it, it’s just handwaved away like “well they’re super talented, so they pulled it off”.

Right before they pulled each other off.

The film also has a central mystery surrounding the phrase “Who is John Galt?” which could also have provided some intrigue for the audience. However, this also falls flat on its face because, somehow, the characters aren’t even interested in the mystery! Imagine this: your best, most talented employees are resigning one-by-one, can’t be persuaded stay and they all give the same, cryptic explanation – “Who is John Galt?” You’d think that someone would try to figure out what this conspiracy is all about, but Dagny and Hank don’t even bother to look into it. WHY!? This might have been explained in the novel, but here it’s left untouched for no discernible reason, time after time. This even ruins scenes which were actually building up their own tension, such as when Owen Kellogg resigns from Taggart Transcontinental. The scene has Dagny asking Owen every question except why he’s leaving, so when she finally does, the camera zooms in on his face for a close-up, there’s a pregnant pause and then he answers with… “Who is John Galt?” Cue ominous music, black and white freeze-frame and then a pop-up that says that he’s gone missing. End scene. What the actual fuck was that? That’s like the cinematic equivalent of prematurely ejaculating into your girlfriend’s hair right when things were getting interesting. And, again, Dagny doesn’t even look into what happened! She just whines to Hank later about “why are so many great men disappearing?” I guess we’ll never know with that attitude! Oh, and to make matters worse, it’s not like we’re given an answer to any of this, not in this film anyway. The film certainly hints that there’s some sort of cult surrounding John Galt, who is doing something to whisk away the talented people in society, but there is no payoff to the subplot in this film.

That actually brings us to another issue with Atlas Shrugged: Part I – it is very much an extended first act, rather than a stand-alone film. Sure, you’re probably supposed to experience all three parts back-to-back, but that doesn’t change that this was released stand-alone and that, at one point, you would not have been able to view the complete package (not to mention that you may not have the time to do so anyway). It’s not really rocket science though, they had two options available. One: knowing that they needed each part to be satisfying in its own right, they could have made this film’s railroad drama more interesting and provided some more payoff to all the plot threads they introduced. Or, two: a number of scenes could easily have been trimmed down to move the plot further ahead and not leave so many unanswered threads just dangling in the wind. I could easily see Atlas Shrugged as a two-part film, but instead they chose to stretch it out over three films to the detriment of this film’s enjoyment (hey, where have I heard that before?). I mean, the film ends with Dagny not finding the inventor of the new motor she and Hank rediscovered and having Wyatt’s oil fields burn to the ground. That’s about as much of a non-ending as you could possibly have.

Another notable aspect of Atlas Shrugged: Part I is just how cheap it feels, despite the fact that this film’s budget was somewhere between $10-20 million dollars. Sure, that’s a low amount, but it’s certainly a workable number of a film which is largely about people talking about railroads. Like, DOA: Dead or Alive‘s budget was $21 million, and that film had to incorporate bigger sets, fight choreography, more special effects and more expensive actors, all while looking much better than Atlas Shrugged: Part I. All of The Purge films have had similar budgets as well and are considerably better looking and feature plenty of exciting action sequences. Hell, Neil Marshall’s The Descent is one of the greatest horror films of the twenty-first century and it was filmed on a budget under $10 million. It all comes down to the producers, director and crew and unfortunately there are moments when Atlas Shrugged: Part I literally looks like a micro-budget fan film. This cheapness stands in stark contrast to the supposed opulence of the characters inhabiting the film. Like, there’s a part of the film where Hank’s upper-class meal involves him eating a baked potato and some slices of bread. The sets suffer somewhat from this as well. Sometimes we’ll get an expansive exterior shot of a big mansion or a rail line, and then in others we’ll a character’s office which could have easily been left over from some legal drama. Perhaps my absolute favourite moment though comes during Hank Rearden’s introduction. Check this image out:

As you can probably see, they couldn’t film the scene in a proper factory, so they went into some office building, green screened the windows and then keyed in stock footage of a rail factory and hoped no one would notice. This was so bad that I had to pause the film and rewind it several times to make sure I was seeing this right, because it made me laugh for several minutes. I’ll admit, it’s a clever workaround for their problem, but the office that they chose to film it in makes it glaringly obvious. I mean, look at the placement of the doors, which don’t make any spacial sense compared to the factory (especially the exit which is apparently right next to the factory floor). The lack of lighting in this dark office also doesn’t help make this any more convincing. There is also some horrible, 90s-quality CGI during the train sequences – the train itself looks unconvincing, but the railroad tracks are the worst part, having been painted this bright, contrast-less chrome colour in order to convey how “special” Rearden metal is. The opening shots of the film are also really bad – they need to show a train derailment, but they can’t afford the CGI to do it, so they just take some (obviously-darkened) stock footage of trains, cut between shots of broken rails and then have some guy screaming to imply that the train crashes. It’s the sort of work-around that feels even less like a fan film and more like high school students running around in the backyard with a camera. I can’t help but think that the cheapness of this is partially due to the film’s rushed production schedule, which squeezed out any time to secure proper on-location shooting or dress sets properly, squandering a budget that many other films could put to much better use. Like, with a proper pre-production schedule, they could have secured filming rights at a factory, but when they had to slap a whole film together in two and a half months, that wasn’t a luxury they could afford.

On a somewhat-related note, man, the writing in this film is not good. Having not read the novel, I’m not sure if this is a Rand issue or if it’s because of the breakneck production speed, but at the very least screenwriters John Aglialoro and Brian Patrick O’Toole have to bear some fault for co-writing the film that we got. In addition to the unengaging plot that I’ve already mentioned, the characters are poorly conceived and come across more like propagandistic mouthpieces than actual people. Our “heroes”, Dagny and Hank, are both infallible business people who look down on the people around them and take control of everything because they know best. And, hey, the film agrees with them, despite never really showing how or why we are supposed to believe that they should have this confidence. They just succeed at everything regardless, so we’re meant to believe that this makes them hyper-competent and deserving of having opportunities just fall into their laps (such as the experimental engine Hank just stumbles across). Despite all this, there isn’t much to actually make you like Hank or Dagny unless you’re already an Objectivist, because holy shit they are dicks. Hank states, outright, that his only goal is to make money and that he hates giving to the “less privileged”, while Dagny whines about altruism and cancels a rail project in an undeveloped part of Mexico because she doesn’t see how it benefits her in any way. Meanwhile, all of the other characters are portrayed as scummy, conniving, incompetent and underhanded, particularly James Taggart who relies on political favours to advance his company (which this film views as illegitimate business compared to Dagny’s “actual work”) and Wesley Mouch (Mouch? …Mooch? Real subtle there, Rand…), who lobbies Washington to try to break up Rearden’s monopoly on the steel market. Probably worst of all is Hank’s wife, Lillian, who is possibly the biggest shrew of a female character that I have ever seen. In Rand’s eyes, there’s no emotional value to anything, no love between these characters – she sees a bracelet made of Rearden metal given to her as a sign of ego rather than a sentimental gift and complains about it constantly, while also being portrayed as leeching off of Hank’s success unworthily. When Dagny offers to trade it for a diamond necklace, Lillian jumps at the opportunity since it’s worth more in terms of real value. Holy crap, is that the kind of worldview that Rand believes exists, which justifies her own brand of assholes?

That, of course, brings us to one of the film’s biggest issues – it’s ultimately all about trying to extol the necessity of Objectivism. Normally I try to avoid getting too much into objectionable ideology within a work, for fear of having the whole review turn into a rant and so that people who agree with that ideology can’t just write off my arguments wholesale. Trust me, as I have already stated above, there are plenty of reasons why Atlas Shrugged: Part I fails just on a film-making level. However, considering that this film’s story is inextricably intended to be a case-study for the necessity of Objectivism, ignoring this fact in a review would be like tip-toeing around the existence of sports in Air Bud. With that said, Atlas Shrugged: Part I does a piss-poor job of convincing anyone that Objectivism is a good idea. Part of the issue is that the aforementioned characters don’t act like real human beings. Characters like James Taggart, Wesley Mouch and Lillian Rearden are transparent strawmen whose whose entire purpose is to antagonize our perfect “heroes” and single-mindedly leech off of the success of others rather than do work themselves. It’s pretty hard to make a case for your ideology in a film when the world that it’s presented in looks and feels completely unlike our own. Even then it’s hard to identify with our “heroes”, because when Dagny and Hank suddenly start complaining about how much they hate having to give money to people they deem unworthy, it flies in the face of conventional morality. Like, in basically any other movie, having a character say that they don’t like helping the underprivileged would be a line given to the villains, but in this one case we’re meant to think “yeah, that’s right! Fuck the poor!” As far as the film is concerned, only the “best people” in society drive us forward and everyone else just leeches off of their success undeservedly.

The merits of Dagny and Hank’s “worthiness” is also rather questionable to me. The entire plot is put into motion because Taggart Transcontinental’s trains start derailing after James Taggart makes a deal with another steel company to expand their rail lines. When that fails, Dagny announces that her solution to this massive PR issue is… to bank everything on an untested, experimental metal that she intends to use to re-rail their entire line in 9 months!? When your company is still reeling from disaster after disaster you’d think that, I dunno, they’d perform rigorous safety checks first, right? Apparently that doesn’t matter though, because Dagny is worthy and therefore always right. After all, if she wasn’t always right, then she wouldn’t be worthy, would she! Then, in our introduction to Hank, he’s just as much of a smug dick – he’s introduced crumpling up and laughing at requests to meet with experts and metalworking guilds about his new metal, denoting that he doesn’t need to prove that his metal is the good because he already knows it is. Guys, he’s worthy, he doesn’t need to explain or justify himself! But, like… is he really? Dagny and Hank talk up about how great Rearden metal is throughout the film, but we’re never really told or (more importantly) shown why it’s such a big deal or how Hank developed this seemingly-magical product. Even when the science institute says that Rearden metal is unsafe, Dagny and Hank insist that they’re wrong. It comes across that government and science are just conspiring to screw over big businesses, which only want to progress human achievement. Of course, their claims about how good Rearden metal is are to “proven” when they finally get the chance to test it… once. This all just comes across to me as the film insisting that Dagny and Hank are so great and smart, and that their arrogance is totally merited because they’re just that good. Nevermind all the people like Billy McFarland who exude all the confidence in the world and who everyone around him claims is a visionary building great things, who ends up being a massive con artist when it all crumbles – the only difference is that Dagny and Hank manage to actually accomplish what they say they’ll do, inexplicably.

There’s also a big exposition dump near the end of the film, when Dagny and Hank are headed to the abandoned Twentieth Century Motor Corporation to find the experimental engine they were developing. Hank explains that the company went out of business because of “bad ideas”: they paid everyone according to a wage scale, paying everyone according to their needs rather than their contributions. Dagny is vehemently opposed to this and says: “Why all these stupid altruistic urges? It’s not being charitable or fair. What is it with people today?” Hank then says that, because of this, “no surprise, the smart managers and the better workers left the company. But hundreds of remaining staff couldn’t handle it alone. Service dropped, quality in their once-great products was gone, and that was that.” This is, of course, what Objectivists thinks happens when companies don’t reward their workers according to their contributions, but it seems way too simplified to me. For one thing, who is it that’s determining the proper pay for contributions? The workers on the ground are the ones keeping the company going, but the managers are the ones who are going to set the pay – you know that they’re the higher-ups are going to be taking the credit and making the most, regardless of the success or failure of the company. It sure is convincing when we’ve got a pair of super-rich people complaining about how they’re not able to make even more money when that system has already gotten us into a state of radical wealth inequality. Furthermore, are you telling me that these “smart managers” didn’t get replaced by similarly-capable workers or that the company wasn’t grooming new employees to move into their positions? Probably strangest of all, all of the company’s innovations were then lost and left behind!?

This Randian philosophy at the heart of the narrative ultimately results in a film that doesn’t fit into any conventional sense of morality. It advocates for a dog-eat-dog world where the rich don’t have to have any sort of obligation to society. At best, it suggests that they will use this freedom to help drive society forward (as we see with Dagny and Hank’s efforts to revolutionize the railroads and motors), but this is a laughably simplistic notion to apply to real life. In the years since the publication of Atlas Shrugged, its libertarian message has taken root in the United States and has led to insane wealth inequality where people can’t succeed no matter how “worthy” they are. Of course, the people at the top will maintain that they deserve to be, despite making more than the vast majority of the employees under their purview, combined.

So, yeah – Atlas Shrugged: Part I sucks. It advocates for an immoral ideology at its core and then has to resort to strawmen and plot contrivances to make it even seem reasonable within its own fiction. Even then, the film itself is poorly made and uncompelling to watch. Similarly to the Christian films I mentioned earlier, Atlas Shrugged: Part I is the sort of film which is only going to appeal to the people who already agree with its worldview and feel validated by its existence. For basically everyone else, it’s a total slog with an unsatisfying non-conclusion.

3/10

Be sure to tune in again soon as we take a look at the next entry in this series, Atlas Shrugged: Part II!

Please follow and like us:

Movie Review: Pokemon – Detective Pikachu

Hey guys, I saw Pokemon: Detective Pikachu a day before its wide release and did up a video review of it. I normally will be relegating Pokemon content to my Youtube channel rather than here, but there is a bit of cross-over here since I often do movie reviews on my blog so I figured I would post it here. Check it out (note: there are some very minor spoilers in the video, just so you know)!


A few additional notes that I have thought since I recorded this:

  • The opening scene feels like it was either added in reshoots or was all that remained of a longer opening act – it feels at odds with the rest of the film, introduces a character that we’re never going to see again, and only really matters in that it introduces Cubone.
  • Having thought about it a bit more, the villain’s plan is even stupider than I realized. In addition to the fact that he probably could have initiated it earlier than he does, it’s also just extremely contrived writing.
  • The writing in general is easily the weakest aspect of the film. There’s a big action set-piece near the end of the second act which doesn’t really have any bearing on anything, it just happens and goes on longer than nearly any other action scene in the film. It’s fun, but when you give it some critical thought it isn’t particularly satisfying.
  • I geeked out at the soundtrack, there are some classic Pokemon music call-backs in here.
  • Where the hell are Jolteon and Chikorita? I saw an ad with Jolteon in it, but we don’t see one in the flesh? 1/10, would not recommend.
Please follow and like us:

Retrospective BONUS: Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988)

Surprise! You didn’t think that I was totally chainsawed out, did you? While working through the Texas Chainsaw retrospective, I was reminded that Gunnar Hansen appeared in another chainsaw-based film – 1988’s Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers. I’ve been aware of this film for a long time, having frequented BadMovies.org as a high schooler. Naturally, the bonkers title and some hilarious plot points (including an ancient Egyptian chainsaw cult!) have always kept this film on my radar, so I figured what better time to watch it than now, especially considering that this is my 250th blog post? After all, this is probably a Texas Chainsaw parody, so might as well append it onto this retrospective series, right? Read on to find out…

Objectively, this is a pretty bad poster, with shots from the film badly cut and pasted in, lots of wasted space and the main characters are probably the smallest part of the whole image. But, for this kind of movie, it works well enough. Also, that is a really great tagline!

PRODUCTION
(Pretty much all of the info I have on the production of this film comes from this featurette on the making of Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, I definitely recommend checking it out if you have the time!)

Fred Olen Ray had been working as director on low-budget films for a number of years in Hollywood, kind of like a cheaper, sleazier, less-successful Roger Corman. By 1985 he had begun working on several films per year, shooting as quickly and cheaply as possible. By the late 80s, Fred had struck a production deal with an adult video company called LA Video and their subsidiary, mainstream distribution company, Camp Motion Pictures. LA Video expressed interest in distributing a new film for Fred and it was here that he pitched his idea for Chainsaw Hookers. LA Video added “Hollywood” to the title to make it sound more like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Fred managed to rope Gunnar Hansen into the project. This was, of course, at the time when both Cannon Films and New Line Cinema weren’t interesting in working with Gunnar Hansen since they didn’t think he was a big enough star, so it just goes to show how much wiser Fred Olen Ray was than either company. With Hansen on board and $25,000 in hand from LA Video in exchange for the home video rights, Fred went about making his film, rewriting a script by T.L. Lankford.

In addition to snagging Gunnar Hansen to play the main villain, The Master, Fred Olen Ray managed to get Linnea Quigley to play the female lead. Qugiley is best known for being naked in a number of famous horror roles throughout the 80s, and by this point had already been in Silent Night, Deadly Night and Return of the Living Dead, so Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers was more-or-less the perfect role for her. John Henry Richardson was also cast as the male lead, Detective Jack Chandler.

Naturally, this being a Fred Olen Ray film, he made it while working on other projects. While doing pick-ups on a low-budget movie called Moon in Scorpio, Fred agreed to take a lower pay cut in exchange for the use of Trans World Entertainment’s studio space and film equipment during downtime, which he would use to film Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers. As per the agreement, he had the equipment from Friday to Sunday, filmed the pick-ups for Moon in Scorpio Monday to Thursday and then finished Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers the next Friday to Sunday. All in all, he took about 5 1/2 days to shoot the film on a measly budget in the neighbourhood of $55,000. Naturally, the filming conditions were extremely sketchy – it was shot with no permits, on leftover sets from other films, with real chainsaws and even with real hookers on occasion! Even the film stock was as cheap as possible, using short ends which were left over from other films. The audio was all shot on set as well, so considering that there are chainsaws revving loudly on a number of occasions, you can’t tell what the characters are saying at all sometimes because there was no budget for redubbing dialogue. The conditions were also potentially dangerous for the cast, particularly since they were using real chainsaws – in one notable instance, Linnea Quigley (who had already spent seven hours in makeup) was locked inside of a coffin with two running chainsaws so that she could preform the film’s iconic virgin dance of the double chainsaws. Naturally, this meant that the coffin was quickly filled with chainsaw fumes and Quigley can be visibly seen stumbling out of the coffin because she could barely breathe.

Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers ended up being one of Fred Olen Ray’s more successful films. That said, I want to just look at his career a little bit. He’s been making mockbusters, sexploitation films and, most recently, freaking Hallmark Christmas movies in order to get by (I’m pretty sure I’ve even seen at lest one of those Christmas movies too, holy shit). He’s like The Asylum before that studio cornered the mockbuster market. Most obviously, in 1994 we’ve got Dinosaur Island (riffing on Jurassic Park), in 1998, Mom Can I Keep Her? (Mighty Joe Young) and in 2011, Bikini Time Machine (Hot Tub Time Machine). Oh, and he’s been releasing sleazy, borderline-softcore porno films throughout his whole career, although they seem to have picked up and become more pornographic since the 2000s. Just trolling through his directing credits, we’ve got such fantastic titles as Bikini Airways, Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold, Thirteen Erotic Ghosts (which must have the best IMDb description ever), Genie in a String Bikini, Super Ninja Bikini Babes (which sounds like an alternate title for Dead or Alive) and Tarzeena: Jiggle in the Jungle. Lately, he’s been slumming it with shitty Christmas movies, having released 10 since 2007 (and 9 of those have been since 2012, bloody hell), and with cheap crime films, which should probably give you an idea of the cultural zeitgeist when these are the only profitable genres left.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
The film opens with Detective Jack Chandler recounting one of his strangest cases, via voiceover in true hardboiled noir style. We follow a hooker named Mercedes as she picks up a man and then kills him with a chainsaw later in her apartment. Apparently there have been a number of chainsaw hooker murders going down in Los Angeles lately, and Jack Chandler heads to the police station to check in on a chainsaw murder suspect who might be related to a missing girl case he’s taken on. The suspect is not the missing girl, Samantha, but Jack steals a piece of evidence with a phone number on it in order to get closer to the source of the chainsaw murders. The phone number leads Jack back to Mercedes and he arranges to meet her at a local club. When he gets there, he finds Samantha dancing as a stripper at the club, but is drugged by Mercedes before he can notify the authorities.

When Jack awakens, he is tied to a bed and surrounded by killer hookers, including Mercedes and Samantha. The Master comes into the room and informs Jack that he is the leader of an ancient Egyptian chainsaw cult and that he is going to sacrifice Jack to their god. The hookers then try to kill Jack, but their chainsaw has run out of gas. They order Samantha to guard Jack while they go to get gas from the corner store, but Samantha frees him. She reveals that she’s infiltrating the chainsaw cult because they killed her friend and she wants to get revenge on them. The pair escape back to Jack’s apartment, where Samantha suddenly falls in love him and the pair have sex.

That night, they try to sneak into the cult’s temple in order to stop their plans, but it’s a trap and they are captured. Samantha’s given a mind-control drug in order to be used in the ceremony, while Jack is tied up and prepared for sacrifice. After performing a ritual dance, Jack is brought to Samantha by The Master in order to be killed, but Samantha instead kills The Master and then gets into a chainsaw duel with Mercedes. Mercedes is killed by Samantha and the police arrive and round up the rest of the cult. Jack and Samantha kiss and Samantha is hired as Jack’s new secretary.

REVIEW
Okay, so other than featuring Gunnar Hansen in a chainsaw killer movie, there’s basically nothing that connects Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s not even a slasher parody like I had originally expected. Instead, it’s a parody of pulp, noir detective films, very similar to The Naked Gun (which, coincidentally, came out the same year as this film). Naturally, this movie isn’t anywhere near as funny as The Naked Gun, but it is much funnier than I was expecting it would be… usually intentionally! John Henry Richardson’s Jack Chandler doesn’t have the same sort of comical ineptitude or deadpan delivery as Leslie Neilson’s Frank Drebin, instead Jack Chandler is played with more of a sarcastic, over-confident tone that often gets him into trouble. He makes for a great stereotypical detective lead, which just makes it funnier when he spouts some of the absolute best, cheesiest lines in the whole film. The delivery of lines like “If my head wasn’t hurtin’ so much, I’d have sworn I was in heaven – heaven for guys who liked big tits” was enough to have me laughing out loud throughout the film. John Henry Richardson’s acting is by far the best in the film and I definitely need to give special mention to the monologue that he turns into Jack’s best line in the whole film:

“I’d stumbled into the middle of an evil, insidious cult of chainsaw worshipping maniacs. I had to wonder if we’d let our religious freedom go too far in this country, or maybe our immigration laws were just too lax. I’ve never been much for politics, but I kept thinking about that pretty girl’s warm head on my lap, and then I wondered how many other pretty girls would never be able to put their heads on my lap because they’d been cut off by that refugee from the BTL club and his slice-happy sluts, I started to get mad.”

Holy shit, that is the funniest anti-immigration screed I’ve ever heard, I love it. Honestly, I was cringing when that monologue started, but by the middle I was in stitches I was laughing so hard.

There really are a lot of good jokes in this film and I just want to highlight a few of my favourites here. When Jack gets captured he keeps guessing The Master’s plan by throwing out the most ridiculous ideas he can think of (“What is this, some ancient chainsaw-wielding cult?” “Actually, that’s just what this is”) to the point where he just starts saying tropes and The Master ends up asking how Jack knows all of this. The idea of there being an ancient Egyptian cult with chainsaws is also lampshaded in a very tongue-in-cheek fashion which I appreciated. I also found it hilarious how the official police explanation for one of the chainsaw murders is that it was an accident and the victim “was just cleaning his chainsaw when it went off”. There’s also a chainsaw murder at the start of the film where a hooker kills some police officers during an interview and later it is explained that the policemen forgot to take the gas out of the chainsaw, paving over a pretty obvious plot hole in the funniest way possible. There are also some pretty good sight gags in the film, such as when Jack’s voice over during a scene is obviously at odds with what actually happens, just so that he can make himself look better. My favourite WTF sight gag though is when Jack enters a strip club and the camera focuses on the tough customers at the bar staring at him, which inexplicably ends with this pissed-off, twelve year old ginger kid (who, apparently, was Fred Olen Ray’s son). The film doesn’t even acknowledge it, which makes it even funnier.

Like I said, most of the jokes in this film land, although there are plenty of laughs to be had from the cheap film-making and bad acting. Most of the dialogue is on the level of a bad porno, especially during the chainsaw murder scenes. The early scene where Mercedes murders Bo Hansen has some of the funniest bad acting that I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. Hearing Bo, after realizing his sexy times are coming to an abrupt, gasoline-fueled end, whelps “Oh no! Oh no! GAHHHH!!!” in the funniest way possible. The murders themselves tend to be really funny too, as there’s obviously someone off-screen spraying the hookers with fake blood while someone else tosses a bucket of blood at them and someone else throws fake fingers (to top it off, someone tries to grab Mercedes’ boob with a fake severed hand, fantastic). It’s so obviously fake and amateur that it makes these scenes really funny to watch. The terrible, Value Village-quality Egyptian costumes at the end also could only work in a cheap parody movie like this.

That said, not all of the jokes land and there are some stinkers in here. Probably the most offensive joke is when Jack calls the homicide squad the “homo squad”, which came across to me like it was meant to be “funny because gay”, but just made me cringe a little. Thankfully, I didn’t notice any other homo- or transphobic jokes in the film, which is actually somewhat impressive for a film this old. The film also seems to think that it’s hilarious that a slang term for detective is “dick”. Sure, it was actually quite funny the first time the police chief complained about having “another private dick in my face”, but by the fourth or fifth “dick = detective = penis” joke, it was a bit much. Then there are a few jokes which are just stupid, like when Jack tries to get the bartender’s attention by… making shadow bunnies on the wall? Umm, okay, that feels like they were trying a little too hard for a laugh.

Of course, in addition to being a comedy, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers is a straight-up exploitation film with tons of gratuitous nudity to satisfy its thirsty audience. The film has tons of nudity and porno-level dialogue, but I wouldn’t say it reaches the level of a softcore porn film, if only because there are no sex scenes. That said, the chainsaw killings are treated in the way that a sex scene normally would, where the killing is the… er… “big climax” that the narrative builds towards, and of course they are all shot with topless women getting coated in buckets of blood. Naturally, there is plenty of gratuitous nudity even outside of the chainsaw killings, to the point where I’d estimate that maybe half of the movie has some nudity in it… and hey, considering the type of movie this is, at least it’s delivering the goods. Funnily enough, Fred Olen Ray has stated that the film was intended to be a message about safe sex – after all, any person you pick up could turn out to be a chainsaw-wielding maniac if you’re not careful.

Unfortunately, the film loses steam towards the end after The Master appears and Jack meets Samantha. Part of the problem is that around the forty-minute mark, Jack starts turning into a misogynistic douche bag. For one thing, Samantha is introduced as a surprisingly strong woman, who infiltrated this cult in order to get revenge for her friend’s death. However, she is quickly knocked down a peg when Jack headbutts her to knock her out, and then when she wakes up she immediately forgives him and then… tries to have sex with him because she’s so impressed!?! What the hell? This is followed-up by Jack’s girlfriend walking in on them, but Jack doesn’t care when she breaks up with him because he’s found himself a younger, hotter woman now. At this point, all of Jack’s one-liners start becoming about objectifying Samantha. Oh, and if that all wasn’t bad enough, it’s definitely implied that Samantha is lying about her age and is possibly a minor. I get that this is parodying noir tropes, but it doesn’t have any sort of consequence for Jack, which really bothers me and just makes it come across like they’re just playing it straight. It certainly doesn’t sink the film, but it makes it harder for me to give a shit about the film’s hero.

However, the last fifteen minutes of the film are by far the worst. The film is barely over the hour mark and I feel like the last fifteen minutes suffer because they were padding for time to get the film a proper runtime. There’s a good eight minutes that bring the film’s pacing to a grinding halt. Picture this – we’re in the cult’s temple and watching a ceremony, wondering what is going to happen. Then, we’ve got several minutes watching a priest pour a can of oil out… and then pour another can of oil. Umm, okay, where is this going? Then a topless hooker comes out and starts fire breathing, again, for several minutes without leading to anything. Then we get the film’s virgin dance of the double chainsaws, which manages to be iconic, badly done and pointless at the same time. On the one hand, it’s Linnea Quigley dancing topless with a pair of chainsaws, so there’s an inherent level of sexiness and coolness to the scene which helps to carry it. Unfortunately, it’s also hard to ignore that the dance is not particularly sexy in itself – as I’ve mentioned, Linnea was high on gas fumes, exhausted from seven hours of makeup and wielding two real, heavy chainsaws and trying to do something to arouse the audience. Again, it works because of her inherent sexiness, but it’s extremely obvious that she’s not able to give 100%. Add in that the editing during this entire temple ritual sequence has tons of pointless cut-aways to random hookers (I swear that several of these shots are recycled during the scene as well), and it becomes obvious why the final fifteen minutes of this film are so tedious to sit through.

As for the performances in this film, they’re pretty bad on the whole. Like I said earlier, John Henry Richardson’s acting is by far the best, but nearly everyone else is pretty bad. Unfortunately, even Gunnar Hansen puts in a very bland performance as The Master, saying all of his lines in a very monotone voice. That’s just too bad, I was hoping we’d get some scenery-chewing from him. I’m also sad to say that Linnea Quigley’s acting is really poor in this film. Her line deliveries are all unconvincing and the choreography during her epic chainsaw duel with Mercedes is just pathetically awkward – like, imagine a grade-school film project sword fight and you’ll have an idea of how badly-choreographed this fight is. Thankfully, as Jack Chandler says, “The kid talked like a frosted flake, but she had the nicest set of knockers that I’d seen in a long time”.

Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers was shot for about $55,000 in five and a half days. That’s an insanely low budget and shooting time for any film. You can definitely tell that this film was done under both of those constraints, but dayum it looks really good in spite of that. I can’t exactly call this a good movie in terms of quality, but in terms of pure fun it’s a hoot, even if the last act brings it down somewhat.

4/10

Please follow and like us:

Retrospective: Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013)

Welcome back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre retrospective! In today’s entry we’re going to be looking at the seventh entry in the franchise, 2013’s Texas Chainsaw 3D! Despite the success of the Platinum Dunes remake and its less-successful prequel, new rightsholders Lionsgate aimed to create a follow-up on the original film, ignoring all of the other films in the franchise in the process. Would this back-to-basics approach finally allow the franchise to find its footing? Read on to find out…

Not particularly enthused by this poster, but the tagline “Evil wears many faces” is great, love it.

PRODUCTION
After The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning‘s profitable, but disappointing box office numbers, Platinum Dunes and New Line had no interest in producing another film in their remake franchise. As a result, the rights reverted to Bob Kuhn and Kim Henkel, who entertained offers to produce new films in the franchise. In late 2009, Twisted Pictures and Lionsgate purchased the rights to the franchise, and signed a deal to produce several new films (the number of films planned ranged from five to seven). More details emerged in early 2011 when Lionsgate partnered with Nu Image films to help produce the film, which was going to be shot in 3D. 3D was, of course, the big trend at the time. Following the box office success of Avatar, films such as Clash of the Titans began converting to 3D in post-production and experienced a box office bump as a result (although such shoddy 3D conversions would ultimately lead to major audience fatigue with 3D due to the poor quality). After seeing that 3D meant big business, many films began being shot and released in the format, such as the horror comedy Piranha 3D.

John Luessenhop was hired to direct, having just come off of the relative success of the Matt Dillon-starring armoured truck heist film Takers (not to be confused with the other Matt Dillion-starring armoured truck heist film that had come out the year before, Nimród Antal’s Armored). It was announced that the new film would be a direct sequel to the original film and would ignore the events of the sequels and remake. Debra Sullivan and freaking Adam Marcus (most famous for being the writer and director of the flat-out worst Friday the 13th film, Jason Goes to Hell) were brought on board to write the script for the film. According to Adam Marcus, the original intent was to explore Leatherface’s relationship to his family and to fill out some mythology for him, much like what he did with Jason Voorhees (and failed spectacularly at, which I can’t stress enough). He also intended to set the film in the ’90s (in a cheeky bit of meta-text, it was intended to be set around the release date of Jason Goes to Hell). The film was also designed as more of a monster movie, rather than a slasher film, which would give Texas Chainsaw 3D a different sort of feel within its franchise. However, after Kirsten Elms and Lussenhop took the script for rewrites, someone high up in the production decided to change the film’s setting to the modern day at the last minute, even though the film had already been cast with characters aged for a ’90s setting. As a result, the actors are all inexplicably 20 years too young, a major plot whole which basically every review of the film will point out. Presumably, the person in charge of that decision just assumed that audiences wouldn’t notice or care, but it’s really obvious and dumb when you watch the film.

Speaking of the cast, Texas Chainsaw 3D brought back a number of classic Chainsaw cast members for cameo roles. Most notably, Marilyn Burns and Gunnar Hansen both returned to play Verna Sawyer-Carson and Boss Sawyer, respectively. This was Hansen’s last film appearance before his death in 2015, and one of Burns’ last roles before her death in 2014. Bill Moseley also returned to play Drayton Sawyer in the film’s opening scene, playing tribute to the late Jim Siedow who had died in 2003. John Dugan was the only returning actor to reprise his role from the original film, having played Grandpa Sawyer way back in 1974. As for the new cast, the gorgeous Alexandria Daddario was cast in the lead role of Heather Miller, while the role of Leatherface went to Dan Yeager in his first major role. Notably, Scott Eastwood was also cast as a local policeman named Carl. As for the other leads, rapper Trey Songz was cast as Ryan, Tania Raymond as Nikki, Keram Malicki-Sánchez as Kenny and Shaun Sipos as the hitchhiker Darryl. Other notable cast included Paul Rae as the villainous Mayor Burt Hartman and Thom Barry as the not-so-subtly named Sheriff Hooper.

Filming began on July 18, 2011 in Shreveport, Louisiana during a traditional Chainsaw heatwave and would continue for six weeks. A big deal was made about the crew recreating the Sawyer house, using the original film to try to match all of the details as closely as possible. It was supposedly so accurate that Gunnar Hansen’s only note was to move a chicken cage over a few feet when he arrived on set. Luessenhop shot the film using state-of-the-art Red Epic cameras. The film was also shot on a very low budget (around $11 million), which made production particularly difficult at times and forced the cast and crew to work on a 24-hour schedule towards the end to get everything completed in time. The film was originally scheduled to release in October but was pushed back to January 4, 2013 by the studio for, according to Luessenhop, “stictly business decisions”. This delay may have been, in part, because when the film was submitted to the MPAA, it received an NC-17 rating for extreme violence and had to be re-cut.
PLOT SYNOPSIS
Texas Chainsaw 3D opens with a quick rundown of scenes from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, before cutting into the police arriving at the Sawyer house. A group of Sawyers arrive just before them and hurry to defend the house, but Sheriff Hooper demands only Leatherface to be released to them. The Sawyers agree to Hooper’s terms, but then a lynch mob led by Burt Hartman arrives and begin to shoot at the Sawyers and set the house on fire. The family is massacred and the only survivor found is Loretta Sawyer and her newborn baby, Edith Rose Sawyer. However, one of the lynch mob members named Gavin Miller kills Loretta and then takes Edith as his own daughter, renaming her Heather Miller.

Jumping ahead to the present day, a somehow-not-40-years-old Heather Miller receives a letter in the mail saying that she has an inheritance from a long-lost grandmother. This causes her to realize that she was adopted and that her birth name is Sawyer, facts which her parents had been keeping from her. Her roommate, Ryan, along with their friends Nikki and Kenny all decide to accompany Heather to Texas to pick up the inheritance. Along the way, they pick up a hitchhiker named Darryl.

When they get to Texas, they meet a lawyer named Farnsworth who reveals that Heather’s grandmother, Verna Sawyer-Carson has left an entire mansion to her. He also leaves a letter from Verna, telling Heather that she needs to read it. The group then heads into the mansion to explore and take in all the opulence. Darryl volunteers to cook dinner for the group while the rest go into town to get supplies, but as soon as they leave Darryl starts to rob the house of all the valuables he can find. In his rummaging, he finds a hidden passage into the basement and comes across a large, locked door. Assuming he came across the jackpot, he tries to break inside, but all he finds is Leatherface, who beats his skull in. Meanwhile, the group get some supplies in town and Heather meets a local cop she takes a fancy to named Carl. She also meets the town’s mayor, Burt Hartman, who she tells that she has inherited the Carson Mansion because she is a Sawyer. Hartman is clearly troubled by this revelation and tries to get Heather to leave town unsuccessfully.

When the group returns to the mansion, they realize that Darryl had robbed the house and think that he has already escaped. Rather than letting that get them down, the group tries to make the most of the situation and begin partying. Everyone begins going their separate ways, with Heather checking out the graves of her family, Kenny begins cooking and Nikki manages to seduce Ryan in the barn. While everyone is busy, Kenny finds the secret passage and begins exploring, but is captured by Leatherface. When Heather returns to the house, she finds the exhumed corpse of Verna in an upstairs bedroom and begins freaking out. When she runs back downstairs she finds Leatherface in the kitchen cutting fingers off of Darryl’s dismembered hand. This causes Heather to freak out even more and Leatherface captures her and takes her to the basement. He then puts Kenny on a meathook and chainsaws him in half. After witnessing her friend’s death, Heather flees the basement and Leatherface pursues her out of the house. Heather tries to hide in Verna’s empty casket, but Leatherface finds her. He is about to kill her when Ryan and Nikki distract him. Heather gets into the group’s van and rescues them from the barn, but Leatherface chases them, damaging the van and causing it to crash. The crash kills Ryan when a giant piece of glass gets embedded in his neck and then Leatherface attacks and badly injures Nikki. Before he can kill her, Heather taunts Leatherface and makes him chase her to a nearby carnival. Leatherface chases Heather through the carnival until Carl confronts him, but Leatherface throws his chainsaw at the officer and flees back towards the mansion.

Heather is taken to the police station for a statement with Sheriff Hooper, but Mayor Hartman comes bursting in, realizing that Leatherface is still alive after all these years. Heather gets left alone in a room full of evidence from the chainsaw killings, which causes her to realize that the lynch mob led by Hartman (and including her adopted parents) massacred her whole family, including her mother. Meanwhile, Hartman and Hooper watch a cell phone video feed from police officer Marvin (who was also present at the lynching), who has entered the Carson Mansion alone. He follows a trail of blood into the basement, where he finds the mutilated bodies of Kenny, Ryan and Darryl and hears a rumbling from a nearby meat freezer. He opens it up and Nikki pops out, which startles Marvin and causes him to accidentally shoot her in the head. Hartman orders Marvin to exit the house and then tells Hooper to help him arrest Heather, since she’s a Sawyer and must be in on this. The pair find that Heather has left the station, writing “MURDERERS” on a photo of the lynch mob. Leatherface then attacks and kills Marvin with a hatchet before skinning his face for a new mask.

Meanwhile, Heather contacts Farnsworth and the pair meet at a bar. Farnsworth explains that Leatherface is her cousin and that she was supposed to let him know that she’s his family as Verna before she died had told him to expect Heather. Hartman then bursts into the bar and assaults Farnsworth while Heather escapes, where she is found by Carl. She tries to get Carl to take her back to the mansion, but Carl reveals that he is Hartman’s son and that he is going to take her to the old slaughterhouse to be eliminated. Leatherface hears this on Marvin’s police radio and heads out to get revenge on them.

At the slaughterhouse, Heather is tied up until Hartman can arrive, but when Carl leaves to see his father, Leatherface shows up and prepares to kill Heather. However, Heather’s shirt had been torn open while struggling away from Carl and Leatherface sees a burn on her breast in the shape of the Sawyer family “S” medallion. Realizing that she is his cousin, Leatherface cuts her free as Hartman and another member of the lynch mob, Ollie, arrive and disarm him. Heather flees, but stops when she realizes that Leatherface is the only family she has left and decides to rescue him. Hartman has chained up Leatherface and is preparing to drop him into a meat grinder, but Heather stabs Ollie and then throws Leatherface his chainsaw. Leatherface frees himself and then gets into a brief crowbar-vs-chainsaw battle with Hartman, which predictably ends when he chainsaws Hartman’s legs off and then backs up him up towards the meat grinder. Hooper arrives on the scene and Hartman begs him to shoot Leatherface, but Hooper has a crisis of conscience and decides that Hartman was wrong to kill the Sawyers in the first place. Hartman is then forced into the meat grinder and killed. Heather and Leatherface return to the mansion, Heather finally having found her family. And in a post-credits stinger, Heather’s adopted parents arrive at the mansion and then are presumably killed by Leatherface.

REVIEW
In many ways, Texas Chainsaw 3D is the biggest and boldest reinvention this franchise has seen since Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Every other film in the franchise has followed a pretty similar mould: a group of people heads down to Texas, something unfortunate happens which strands them, they get chased by a family of chainsaw killers, there’s a dinner scene, then the final girl gets away. Texas Chainsaw 3D shakes things up immediately by featuring footage from the original film in the opening credits and then seamlessly cutting to new footage which picks up where that film left off. You can, of course, notice the difference since the new footage is shot on much higher quality film stock (which is particularly embarrassing when they replace footage of Jim Siedow with Bill Moseley), but I really must say that the crew did a great job of recreating the Sawyer house. All of the little details have been captured very well, even just seeing the police car passing by the abandoned transport truck made me giddy. They even did a pretty good job of recreating Leatherface’s pretty lady mask, which is extra impressive when you consider just how difficult this series has found it to come up with decent looking masks. This whole sequence lasts about ten minutes and is by far the most distinctive aspect of the film. From there, the film turns into more of a gothic tale as Heather tries to understand her long-lost family before Leatherface emerges and begins hunting everyone.

That said, while I can appreciate that Texas Chainsaw 3D was trying to do something different, holy shit is this movie ever stupid. I’ll get the obvious issue out of the way first – not setting this film in the ’90s was perhaps the dumbest decision made in the production of this film. All of the characters are far too young for a modern day setting, and while Heather is the most egregious, the film also suffers because Sheriff Hooper, Burt Hartman and the other members of the lynch mob are all played by the same actors in both timelines. As a result, they really don’t look like they’re the right age in either timeline and it really strains the suspension of disbelief to think that some of them have held down the same jobs in the same town for 40 years now. It’s just insulting that the filmmakers didn’t think anyone would notice or care about this issue, but it instantly breaks any internal logic for the film.

Still, even if the timeline didn’t make any sense, there are a whole load of other fundamentally stupid problems with this film. For a film which is so superficially reverential to the original Chainsaw, it sure does ignore obvious elements of that film in order to make their movie work. By far the dumbest aspect of the story is that the film wants us to sympathize with the Sawyer family… by completely ignoring that they’re a bunch of psychopaths. I’m not kidding, the film tries to pretend like it was only Leatherface who was involved in the unprovoked killing of Sally’s friends, not to mention all the people Nubbins has helped kill and that Drayton has turned into freaking BBQ. It’s not even like Heather wouldn’t have known this, she finds the box of evidence about the Sawyer family’s crimes and their mass killing by the lynch mob. You’d think that maybe she’d think “well that sucks, but I guess they kind of had it coming…” As the film goes on further they act like the lynching was the real crime that happened here, not the Sawyers’ grave robbing, cannibalism, torture and murder which led to the mob attacking them in the first place. Sheriff Hooper even refuses to stop Leatherface from murdering Mayor Hartman because he feels like the Sawyers were treated so unjustly, holy shit! Like… I have no words for how stupid this is. Were they planning on making it a twist in one of the six sequels this film was supposed to get that Heather finds out that her family were all psychos, not just the psycho she lives with now? Somehow I seriously doubt it, because again the filmmakers just assume that we won’t notice or care. That’s not even the only stupid aspect, we’ve also got the whole notion of Verna Sawyer-Carson, which goes against what was established in the original Chainsaw. Wasn’t the whole point of the first Chainsaw that the Sawyers are on hard times because their livelihood has dried up, hence why they’re killing in the first place? You’re telling me that they had a really tight-knit family clan with a super rich relative living nearby who could have helped them out? Even more stupidly, she’s apparently Leatherface’s mother, so if they were on times so hard that they begin murdering people, you’d think she’d help them out. Bloody hell Adam Marcus, you suck at expanding a series’ mythology in a manner which is consistent with that series’ basic, established canon.

Then there’s all sorts of little dumb moments peppered throughout the script, often for plot convenience. Like, in addition to ignoring the whole “Sawyer family are all psychos” bit, Heather just forgives and forgets that Leatherface killed her friends when she finds out that he’s part of her family. Apparently it’s totally okay to be a murderer as long as you’re out to murder people other than me, right? They even contrive elaborate scenarios for Darryl, Ryan and Nikki’s deaths to shunt some of the blame away from Leatherface (although Kenny still gets chainsawed in half, so…). Then there’s the fact that Burt Hartman is apparently as much of a psycho as the Sawyers, hating anyone named “Sawyer” so much that he’ll fly into a murderous rage and assault a freaking lawyer in a public place. Again, this man is the freaking mayor of a small town, what the hell is he so fussed about? Why did they even leave the evidence lying around where Heather could find it and piece together her family’s history with the Hartmans? Hell, why did the locals even lynch the Sawyers, it’s not like Sally was one of their family members anyway? There isn’t really any motivation for them to hate the family so obsessively, you’d think that there’d be something to trigger this feud in the first place. On the smaller end of things, there’s also apparently a carnival right next door to the Carson estate, which seems pretty unlikely to me. I mean, who builds their expensive mansion right next to a loud fairgrounds? Oh right, it’s so we can have a carnival set piece, silly me for asking. It’s also really silly to me how Heather’s grandmother inexplicably keeps track of her, despite being secretly kidnapped all those years ago. When Heather asks Farnsworth how he found her, he says “Honey, you were never lost” to handwave in the laziest fashion this really obvious question. Oh, thanks Farnsworth, that totally clears things up… Or how about Marvin livestreaming himself sweeping through the Carson place when he knows that there’s a chainsaw killer on the loose? I mean, holy shit, I know the film wants Hartman and Hooper to know what’s happening at the mansion, but what kind of a cop would do that when his life is on the line!? Could they not have just had some sort of excuse to use a bodycam instead? Oh and then there’s the big finale at the slaughterhouse, which features a gigantic meat grinder in the middle of the floor that anyone could easily fall into – sounds like a safe, practical design and not just something for the climax of a horror movie!

Speaking of the meat grinder, it makes for a kill which is simultaneously the best and worst in the entire franchise. The best because, c’mon, it’s a freaking meat grinder and we get to see Burt Hartman get chewed up in extremely graphic detail in it. The worst because it relies on extremely shoddy CGI. I mean, check it out:

That’s an awesome kill, but the execution (pardon the pun) is just so lame. Thankfully the film doesn’t rely on CGI too much though, because what little CGI there is here is just so bad, like Red: Werewolf Hunter levels of bad. Check out Leatherface throwing a weightless chainsaw at Scott Eastwood (IN 3D!!!):

The violence in this film is also pretty interesting to me after having just come off of The Beginning. The violence is actually more graphic than in The Beginning: we’ve got Kenny getting sawed in half and having his lower torso and entrails spill out, Ryan gets basically decapitated by a giant shard of glass, we’ve got Marvin getting his face peeled off on camera (a first for the series, this is usually so nasty that they have always cut away from it), and then there’s Hartman getting literally torn up bit by bit in a meat grinder. All of this is shown in explicit detail, but it doesn’t have the same sort of impact as the violence in The Beginning, because the tone is different. The violence here is meant to be more spectacular and fun, whereas in The Beginning it’s just grim and nasty. Preferences may vary on which approach is “better”, but for my part I know that I enjoyed myself more here.

Another element of this film which bothered me was just how ridiculously, distractingly sleazy it is. There isn’t even any actual nudity, but this film is just gratuitously throwing sex at the audience throughout the entire runtime. There are two scenes with very voyeuristic shots of Heather and Nikki getting dressed which serve no actual purpose to the plot and which are obviously just there for the audience to ogle. In addition, basically every outfit worn by Heather shows off her midriff and leaves her boobs bouncing as if this were a Dead or Alive spin-off. The second Nikki shows up on screen we get some major cleavage from her (despite the fact that she’s in uniform at work at a freaking grocery store), plus a whole subplot that revolves around her getting into her underwear to seduce Ryan. To be fair, the men also get a fair bit of objectification as well, as Ryan and Darryl are both eye-banged by the camera while topless and soaking wet, which is sure to soak more than a few panties in the audience. The sheer amount of fanservice is just ridiculous though, it’s constant and to the point of being distracting. It’s also worth noting that this is the only film in this series where the slasher movie convention of “sex = death”, as Ryan and Nikki are killed shortly after having sex, so bombarding the audience with it almost seems counter-intuitive. The most gratuitous scene in the whole film though comes near the end when Heather is tied up by Carl and, while struggling to escape, Heather’s shirt is accidentally ripped open, revealing as much dual side boob as possible without showing any nipple. Worst of all? The film tries to play it off like it’s totally justified, because when Leatherface shows up he sees Heather’s “S” for Sawyer scar on her boob, which causes him to realize that she’s his cousin. So it wasn’t just to show off Alexandra Daddario’s tits to the thirsty audience after all? Good God, I am now ashamed of my words and deeds.

Texas Chainsaw 3D introduces a number of new characters to the franchise, but I can’t say that any of them are particularly good. Alexandra Daddario’s Heather Miller makes for a decent enough heroine, she gets a bit more material to work with than most final girls and she certainly has the looks to stand out, but I can’t say that I was particularly invested in the character, especially considering how dumb the plot we’re supposed to be caring about is. Nikki is a very one-dimensional character who is obsessed with trying to get Ryan to cheat on Heather with her. On the one hand, it’s sort of refreshing that the role of sexual aggressor is being played by a woman, but there really isn’t anything to the character other than that. Of course, since Ryan’s a horny man, he ends up being seduced the moment he sees Nikki in her underwear, despite rebuffing her earlier in the film. Ryan is played charmingly enough by Trey Songz, but there really isn’t all that much to the character. Kenny probably gets the rawest deal of the bunch though, as he gets only a handful of lines and doesn’t get any sort of development. He’s also somewhat effeminate, which makes me wonder if the filmmakers were intending for him to be a gay stereotype, although the film leaves this to speculation (also, I’m surprised at the filmmakers’ restraint for not having someone say “Oh my God, they killed Kenny!”). The hitchhiker, Darryl, also deserves some mention for legitimately surprising me in this film. He didn’t really do much after his introduction, but when it is revealed that he plans on robbing the Carson mansion, I was actually surprised at what should have been a pretty obvious twist. So kudos to Adam Marcus and Debra Sullivan for that, the character is pretty flat, but he makes for a pretty smart twist and first kill.

As for the other new characters, Mayor Hartman is just a generic evil, small-town politician character. He’s not even hamming it up which is unfortunate, some moustache-twirling could have made for a really memorable antagonist, but as it is he’s just functional. His son, Carl, also doesn’t leave much of an impression. Scott Eastwood certainly plays the role as charmingly as possible, but the character basically just functions as a third act plot twist to move the action to the slaughterhouse and then disappears from the film. I wonder if the filmmakers had intended to save him for a sequel, because his absence during the film’s climax is really noticeable. Sheriff Hooper also makes for a very bland character, he’s constantly stuck in inaction which could have made for some compelling conflict for the character, but just makes him seem passive in the plot. The only character I actually quite liked was Farnsworth, the awesome southern lawyer. He doesn’t really get to do anything other than deliver exposition to move the plot forward, but he’s well-performed and very characterful, making me wish that he got to show up more often.

Before I get to Leatherface, I want to mention the cameos in this film. Bill Moseley plays Drayton Sawyer quite well, although the character himself feels quite different to how he was in the original Chainsaw. The other new members of the Sawyer clan are all quite boring though, looking like a bunch of Duck Dynasty cast-offs (even Gunnar Hansen’s Boss Sawyer). Their sudden presence in the Sawyer house is also quite jarring, making me wonder why the hell they all just showed up. I feel like the relative normalcy of these characters was done in part to make the audience forget that the Sawyers were all psychos in the original film, despite the fact that these normal-looking rednecks are still hanging out in a house adorned in human skeletons and dismembered bodies.

As for Leatherface, he’s fairly bland in this film. The character has evolved from a mad dog to a man without direction, seeking revenge against the people who killed his family. According to Dan Yeager:

“I would describe the original Leatherface as a lethal instrument of the will of others. He was not autonomous in any way. He took orders and he fulfilled them, and those orders were basically to kill and butcher. As time progresses to where we pick up our story, all of that has changed. His abusers were no longer there, and there was no longer anyone to tell him what to do. He had to grow from an instrument of violence to seeking vengeance in the people who slaughtered his family. That was the last thing anyone told him to do, so he’s spent decades contemplating and carrying out that mission.”

As I’ve already mentioned a number of times, the biggest change to Leatherface in this film is that we’re supposed to see him as an anti-hero, despite the fact that he still just butchers people without hesitation. But it’s okay, he didn’t realize that he wasn’t supposed to kill those particular people, so all is forgiven! I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but the end result makes Leatherface into a kind of superhero-like figure, which is just baffling to me (a notion which is just reinforced by a post-credits scene). As for the mask, his new mask makes him look like Freddy Krueger. It’s probably a middle-of-the-road mask for this franchise, I don’t particularly care about it one way or another. It is kind of interesting though that in this film Leatherface actually sews his masks onto his own head through his cheeks, which was just painful to watch.

Unlike many of the sequels in this franchise, Texas Chainsaw 3D actually has a running theme which it brings back from the original, the theme of family. The downside is that, like pretty much everything else in this film, it’s handled about the stupidest way possible. The original Chainsaw twisted the traditional conventions of family, changing it into something that was frightening and disturbing. Texas Chainsaw 3D, on the other hand, plays it straight as if this was a saccharine kids movie. This is one of those movies that tells you that family is the most important thing there is. In this film, it’s just assumed that your family will inherently love you. When Heather asks why Verna Carson kept Leatherface in her home, Farnsworth replies that “Nobody loves you like your family”, a message that Heather takes to heart when she decides to live with him at the mansion. The film even tries to justify it by having Heather’s adopted parents be literal murderers who don’t even care about her, which begs the question of why they adopted her in the first place. This, of course, is all over-simplified bullshit that hack writers love to use to make a “feel-good” story, but it’s especially egregious here because, and I haven’t stressed this enough, it’s about a family of serial killers. There’s also this notion that you are defined by your blood (a rather troubling message considering how racist sentiment is on the rise), as we see Heather working as a butcher and making her own bone-art even before she finds out she’s a Sawyer, implying that who you are is based on your bloodline. Burt Hartman seems to take this to heart as he instantly hates Heather as soon as he finds out she’s a Sawyer, but it’s not like the film contradicts him at all.

For all of my ragging on Texas Chainsaw 3D, I do have to say that I had a fair bit of fun with it. The first act sets up the scenario pretty well and the second act is actually quite enjoyable as the group tries to escape Leatherface (there are even a couple fantastic visual gags, such as the van trying to ram through the gates and failing, and then later how the camera focuses on Leatherface’s reaction when the van flips over). It’s really the third act where this film just crumbles into a heap of stupidity too large to ignore, with too many dumb plot points and extremely lazy contrivances driving everything forward.

3/10

Be sure to tune in soon as we take a look at the most recent film in this franchise, Leatherface!

Please follow and like us:

Retrospective: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – The Beginning (2006)

Welcome back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre retrospective! In today’s entry we’re going to be looking at the sixth entry in the franchise, the 2006 prequel-to-the-remake, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. After the considerable financial success of the remake, a follow-up seemed inevitable. However, was a prequel the right way to go to fill in some of the blanks left by its predecessor? Read on to find out…

Pretty meh horror poster if I do say so myself.

PRODUCTION
After the considerable success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Platinum Dunes started looking towards other horror franchises to remake for low cost and high turn-around. Their next project was The Amityville Horror, but when that failed to scare up higher numbers despite having more than double the budget, they turned their eyes back to the Chainsaw franchise. However, Dimension Films were looking to steal the franchise from underneath New Line after putting in an offer with the rightsholders. To prevent this, New Line ended up having to pay an additional $3.1 million just to retain the rights, increasing the film’s budget considerably. Jonathan Liebesman (who would later go on to direct such stinkers as Battle: Los Angeles, Wrath of the Titans and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) was hired to direct, having just come off of success with Darkness Falls and Rings (a short prelude to The Ring Two). Liebesman had been considered to direct the previous film, but had made Darkness Falls instead.

Interestingly enough, the landscape of horror had shifted in the three years between Chainsaw films. The torture porn genre had begun kicking off with such films as SawHostel and Wolf Creek taking over the market and emphasizing brutal violence and gore. In the making-of featurette for the film, the producers name-drop Hostel and The Hills Have Eyes, claiming that Chainsaw was the granddaddy of extreme horror and therefore they had to push the envelope as far as possible to beat the other films of the time. Scott Kosar was supposed to return to write the script, but was unavailable at the time. David J. Schow, who had written the screenplay for Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, returned to co-write the story along with screenwriter Sheldon Turner.

Possibly the best part about making the next film in the franchise into a prequel was that R. Lee Ermey could return as Sheriff Hoyt, despite having been killed off in the last movie. Andrew Bryniarski was also able to return as Leatherface. The new cast included more pretty, young up-and-comers, most notably Jordana Brewster (Mia from The Fast & The Furious) as Chrissie and Diora Baird (known for Wedding Crashers and risque modelling for Guess? and Playboy) as Bailey. The leading roles were rounded out by Matt Bomer (Ken from the Magic Mike series) as Eric and Taylor Handley as Dean.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
The film opens with a woman at the old slaughterhouse being forced to work by her supervisor even when her water breaks. The birth presumably kills her and the deformed baby is thrown into the dumpster out behind the slaughterhouse as if this were an Amazon warehouse. However, the baby is found by Luda Mae Hewitt and brought home to be adopted as a son named Thomas. The boy grows up being made fun of for his skin disease and he ends up making a mask from a dead coyote to hide his face, eventually going on to work at the slaughterhouse under the very supervisor who had unknowingly thrown him away years ago. However, the slaughterhouse is eventually shut down for health violations, which devastates the town. When the supervisor tries to tell Thomas to stop working, he turns on him and kills him, stealing a chainsaw in the process. The local sheriff discovers this and goes to Charlie Hewitt to try to apprehend Thomas, but when they find him, Charlie kills the sheriff and assumes his identity, becoming Sheriff Hoyt. He takes the sheriff’s body home and cooks him, declaring that they’re not going to leave this town and let it be overrun by pillagers.

Meanwhile, brothers Eric and Dean, along with their girlfriends Chrissie and Bailey, respectively, are heading through Texas after being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. Eric has already been on one tour of duty and is gung-ho to fight alongside his brother, but Dean is planning on draft dodging into Mexico during the trip. When they stop at a local shop, Chrissie and Bailey are accosted by a group of bikers and decide to continue on their way. However, one of the bikers chases their car and tries to rob the group. This distracts Eric and causes him to get into an accident with a stray cow, flipping the vehicle and ejecting Chrissie from it in the process. The female biker sticks up the injured youths still in the vehicle, but then Hoyt arrives and blows her away with his shotgun. Hoyt finds burnt draft papers and realizes that one of the men was planning on draft dodging, but Eric lies and says that it was him in order to protect his brother. Hoyt forces Eric, Dean and Bailey into his police car and then takes them back to his house. Chrissie comes to and watches as he takes them away. Moments later, a tow truck arrives to take away their vehicle and Chrissie hides inside the wreck, which also gets taken to the Hewitt residence. She then sneaks away to try to find help.

Once they have arrived, Bailey is tied up under the table inside the house and Dean and Eric are tied up in the shed, where Hoyt tortures them until Dean admits that he was the one who was planning on skipping the draft. Hoyt tells Dean that he’ll let him go free if he can do ten push-ups, which Dean succeeds at despite being beaten mercilessly by Hoyt. Eric then manages to break free and rescues Bailey, then tries to sacrifice himself as a distraction while Dean and Bailey flee. However, Thomas captures Bailey with a meathook and drags her back and Dean steps in a bear trap before Hoyt knocks Eric out. Meanwhile, Chrissie comes across the boyfriend of the biker who was killed, who takes her back to the house in order to rescue his girlfriend.

That night, Thomas takes Eric to the basement and begins skinning him alive, while Bailey is taken upstairs and raped by Hoyt. The biker heads off on his own while Chrissie sneaks into the house and finds Eric horribly mutilated. The biker shoots Uncle Monty in the leg and then forces Hoyt to take him to his girlfriend. Hoyt mistakenly thinks that his girlfriend is Bailey, but before the biker can kill Hoyt, Thomas appears and then chainsaws the biker in half. He then heads back downstairs and kills Eric with the chainsaw, before cutting Eric’s face off and making his first mask out of it. Chrissie witnesses all of this in horror and tries to flee before she has a crisis of conscience and returns for Bailey. However, she is discovered and captured.

When Chrissie comes to, she is restrained at the dinner table along with Dean and Bailey. Hoyt says grace and then Leatherface kills Bailey for being disrespectful. While trying to take away Chrissie, she breaks free and flees the house. Leatherface pursues her into the old slaughterhouse. Meanwhile, Dean wakes up and, enraged upon seeing Bailey’s corpse, attacks Hoyt and beats him senseless before chasing after Chrissie. He manages to rescue Chrissie from Leatherface, but is killed in the process while Chrissie flees to a nearby vehicle. She drives away from the scene until she spots a Texas state policeman. However, Leatherface then reveals that he has been hiding in the back seat this whole time and runs his chainsaw through her back, causing the car to veer into the policeman. Leatherface then walks away from the scene.

REVIEW
The Beginning is a rather interesting case when I reflect on it. You can really see the influence of David J. Schow on the story and his background in splatter films. Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III was already a nasty film at times, even with the MPAA restrictions. However, The Beginning takes nastiness to a whole other level, as this film just feels like punishment to watch. It definitely took a page from the splatter film/torture porn trend which was becoming popular at the time, because even comparing it to its predecessor is a night-and-day difference. As I noted in the previous entry in this series, the Chainsaw remake is surprisingly restrained in its depiction of violence and tends to be more effective as a result. In contrast, The Beginning revels in its depictions of drawn-out violence and gore. I had to reflect back on all of the other Chainsaw films again to compare the nature of their violence – usually, characters die quite quickly (either by bludgeoning or chainsaw) because the villains aren’t reveling in the kill, they just want them to be dead. Usually when a character doesn’t get killed, it’s because the villains are saving them for later (Pam and Andy), not because they want them to suffer. The only times the violence gets drawn out is when L.G. was skinned alive in Chainsaw 2, but this was done accidentally by the villains and is meant to be incredibly shocking because of that. Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III was the only exception to this, with Michelle getting nailed to a chair and Ryan being hung on the meathooks with the explicit intent of taunting him, because of Schow’s splatter background. However, Leatherface still wasn’t as nasty or protracted as The Beginning is.

Even the way that the main characters are treated is different in this film – usually Chainsaw films (and slashers in general) feature the main characters getting unknowingly picked off one-by-one, but The Beginning drags its the characters into the wringer at the same time in order to maximize the suffering that each of them sustains, closer to the format of a Saw sequel. Maximized suffering is probably the best way to describe this film’s goal – as soon as the group gets into their car accident, they’re subject to all manner of escalating awfulness. Special mention first goes to Eric’s death. When it finally comes, the poor guy has been tortured and then beaten by Hoyt after he tries to sacrifice himself so his friends can escape (before realizing that they were unsuccessful). He then gets taken to the basement where Leatherface ties him down and then begins skinning his freaking arms while alive, HOLY SHIT!!! Then when Chrissie finds him in a half-delirious state, they call-back to how many kids they were going to have together, just in time for Leatherface to come back and then, while Chrissie watches, chainsaw him to death. Oh but it’s not over yet, because then Leatherface cuts off Eric’s face and then makes his first mask out of it, thereby spending the rest of the film psychologically torturing Chrissie even more with that imagery. Suffice to say, it’s brutal.

Dean, in comparison, is totally wasted in this film. Early on, much of the conflict of the story revolves around him not wanting to fight in Vietnam and whether he is a coward because of this. As far as the film seems concerned, yeah he kind of is, because he lets Eric take the fall for him when Hoyt realizes that one of the brothers is draft-dodging. Then, when he finally fesses up and performs ten push-ups for his freedom, he is too beaten to actually do anything. Then when he tries to escape, he gets caught in a bear trap, where he spends most of the rest of the film unable to get away. Then when Chrissie is finally captured, he gets dragged unconscious to the dinner table where he doesn’t even awaken until he can become a handy deus ex machina to knock out Hoyt’s front teeth (callback!), save Chrissie and then immediately get chainsawed to death for it. Not really a satisfying story arc, eh? Dean is just one of the clear aspects of this film which reveal that the story doesn’t actually matter, it’s all about maximizing suffering.

Bailey gets the absolute worst deal of the bunch though, infuriatingly so. For one thing, she is immediately sexed-up by the film (how surprising, considering that they hired a Playboy model for the role) and gets barely any lines to actually establish herself as a character with any sort of agency. From there, the way that her suffering stands out is notable. First of all, they tie her up under the table while Luda Mae Hewitt has tea with a friend, explicitly dehumanizing and objectifying her. Sure, it’s not torture and beatings, but the way that she’s excluded says more about the way women are seen as different. Then, if you thought she was getting things easy, she gets meathooked by Leatherface while trying to escape and then gets chained to a bed and FREAKING RAPED BY HOYT, FUUUUCK!!! Then she gets her teeth all knocked out (presumably so she can’t bite Hoyt’s dick off, or perhaps to prevent her from killing herself by biting off her tongue) before getting her throat slashed open when he isn’t being “proper”… bloody hell. So, what sort of things do we know about this character? She’s pretty, sexually active and… uh… yeah, that’s about it. Even when discussing the character, all that the cast can say is that she’s a “free spirit” which just sounds like “loose” to me… Maybe you can see why I hate what happens to this character so much – since she’s a pretty woman, she gets oogled by the camera first and then later the villains turn that sexualization into violence before killing her when she isn’t being a “good woman”. I see enough of this bullshit in manosphere screeds about Madonnas and whores, and it does not feel like this film is playing such a message as anything other than straight (if they even realize that that’s the sort of message that they’re conveying at all).

Compared to everyone else, Chrissie gets off pretty easily in The Beginning. She gets inexplicably thrown from Eric’s vehicle after the accident and is somehow unscathed. She then spends the majority of the film using her Boots of Sneaking to pass impossible DC30 stealth checks, and even when she gets captured she doesn’t suffer too much (physically anyway, seeing your boyfriend’s face worn by Leatherface would scar anyone for life). However, she is killed in the absolute cheapest way when somehow Leatherface manages to outrun Chrissie to her vehicle, then hides in the back seat for like fifteen minutes before popping up and chainsaws her through the back… because this is a prequel, so therefore all the characters have to die! It’s not like we’re supposed to give a shit about anyone anyway, right?

It’s not just the main characters who suffer either. In the film’s opening moments we’ve got Leatherface breaking both of the legs of the slaughterhouse supervisor with a sledgehammer before he goes for the kill, a level of malicious intent unseen in the character until now. Uncle Monty also gets some of the most random suffering, to the point where it’s darkly funny. First he gets shot in the kneecap by the biker and then Hoyt decides that the best thing to do is amputate the leg, so he gets Leatherface to chainsaw it the hell off. However, Leatherface screws up and cuts into the other leg, so they just saw off the other leg off as well, all while Monty and Luda Mae are (understandably) freaking out.

So yeah, in case I hadn’t made it incredibly obvious already, this movie is brutally violent, to the point where it all just feels senseless. Perhaps worst of all though is that it relies on the shock value of its violence to be scary, something which falls flat in my opinion. It’s not like the violence is even particularly intense, unlike some moments from the remake. It’s just brutal and protracted to the point where it feels like I’m being punished by the film for watching it. To some degree I can understand why they would take the film in this direction – as the filmmakers state in the making-of featurette, it’s a nasty story so it deserves a nasty treatment. That’s fair enough as an artistic decision, and perhaps some people would really appreciate that stance, but I just really was turned off by it. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate gory films such as Evil DeadPiranha 3D, even some of the Saw films, but I need to feel like there’s at least some purpose beyond violence for the sake of violence and The Beginning doesn’t give me that.

Even if the violence in the film wasn’t turning me off, there’s still plenty to dislike. First of all, the script sucks on a number of different levels. For one thing, it really struggles to even justify why the Chainsaw remake needed a prequel. The entire origin story for Leatherface and Hoyt is breezed over in the first twenty minutes of the film. From there the film basically becomes a more violent rehash of the remake with some really inconsequential details from the last film explained. Why does Uncle Monty have no legs? A biker shot him and then Leatherface cut them off! Why does Hoyt have no front teeth? Dean knocked them out! Wow, who cares! Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that (we get Leatherface’s first skin mask and chainsaw kills, for example), but even some of the big moments are not very satisfying. A particular example is “where did Leatherface get his chainsaw?” Apparently it was literally just lying around in the supervisor’s office in the slaughterhouse so he just… picked it up? That’s, uh… that’s it? No special affection for it, he just found it and decided that that’s his thing now? It’s also worth noting that, after all my complaints about the lack of motivation for the Hewitts in the remake, The Beginning restores the Hewitt family’s cannibalism. We also get a bit of interesting background for Hoyt regarding this – he was a POW during the Korean War and once a week they were forced to pick a fellow POW to kill and eat in order to survive. Obviously this contributed to the character’s screwed up philosophy on life and it’s too bad that it’s just relegated to an expository line. Like, imagine a proper Chainsaw prequel which hadn’t just rushed through all the details of the family’s evil upbringing in order to get to a half-baked rehash… y’know, something like All-American Massacre was promising us. The laziness of this film is so bad that the climax is, once again, in the same slaughterhouse and the film ends with a really tacked on voice over to remind us that this is supposed to be a true story, both of which were handled far better in the previous film.

If you’re familiar with my retrospectives series then you’re probably aware that I get really annoyed by an overuse of lazy plot conveniences and The Beginning is just loaded with them. Leatherface just finding his chainsaw randomly might be the most egregiously insulting storywriting decision of the bunch, but there are much worse examples. For example, there is apparently only one cop in this entire town and he was conveniently shipping out to Michigan, which allows Hoyt to kill him, assume his identity and then go on crime sprees uncontested… because blue lives really don’t matter it seems. It’s even worse because Chrissie comes across a Texas state trooper at the end of the film and he actually gets run over by her car, so it’s not like this place really is a lawless wasteland anyway. Plus, wouldn’t a dead cop make the state police investigate when they find a chainsaw-impaled woman at the scene? Oh and then there’s the gang of bikers who taunt Chrissie and Bailey, but then later the group is pursued by a single biker who has gone out to rob them. They have a whole gang, why not send out at least a couple people in case something goes wrong? It’s even worse because later her boyfriend is once again riding alone when Chrissie conveniently comes across him and no one bothers to call in the rest of their gang to attack the Hewitt house. Then when she gets away Dean conveniently finds her in the slaughterhouse just in time to save her and to get himself killed, since the film is wrapping up and we can’t have any loose ends dammit!

Hell, if convenience could coalesce into a living person, she would look just like Chrissie. It starts off with a god-tier act where she gets thrown hundreds of feet from a freaking car accident and walks away completely unscathed, conveniently waking up just in time to see Hoyt taking her friends away. Then she manages to sneak into the wreck of the vehicle just in time to hide from a tow truck driver who somehow doesn’t notice her while inspecting the wreck. Then the tow truck driver just so happens to be working for Hoyt and drags the wreck back to the Hewitt residence. Then Chrissie randomly comes across the boyfriend of the biker who Hoyt killed. Then she manages to sneak around the Hewitt residence for like twenty minutes completely unnoticed despite having no idea where she’s going and a number of close calls. AND THEN she finally gets noticed because “they already know you’re here!”, AKA it was finally convenient for the writers for her to get captured. Bloody hell. Oh and then Chrissie somehow manages to miss the fact that a 300lb man outran her to her vehicle, hid in the back seat with his chainsaw and then lay there silently for like fifteen minutes or more before popping up to get a final scare and to make sure there are no survivors that can tell people about the Hewitts’ crimes. How convenient! Imagining Leatherface lying there just waiting for the perfect moment to scare the shit out of her is just hilarious to think about though.

The characters are also one dimensional at best. Of the leads, Matt Bomer puts in a pretty good performance as Eric, but he’s given basically nothing to work with. The only reason I care about the character at all is because of Bomer’s acting. I’ve already mentioned how Diora Baird’s Bailey gets totally shafted in the film as well, Baird is basically just set dressing. I mean, her boobs put in a standout performance at the start of the film, which was probably all that the filmmakers wanted anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I think that Diora Baird could have put in some good work on this film, but she isn’t even given the opportunity with this script. However, Taylor Handley’s Dean is the worst performance of the whole group, giving overly-acted line deliveries and just coming across as whiny when he should be sympathetic. It’s weird, the director and casting director really rave about Handley’s performance and talk like he’s going to be a superstar, but he’s definitely not showing any of that potential in this film. The fact that Matt Bomer was only cast in response to Taylor Handley’s casting was a very happy accident on the filmmakers’ part. Again, it’s not like the script helps him anyway as he gets totally wasted in the second half of the film, and the Vietnam War draft dodging subplot is half-baked with no real payoff. Jordana Brewster’s Chrissie is also just a strangely wasted character. She spends half of the film not even involved in the nastiness going down in the Hewitt house so by the time it comes for her to be the final girl, she hasn’t really left much of an impression other than “man that girl is really good at sneaking around unnoticed”. Again, it’s too bad, I expect Jordana could put in a good performance but she doesn’t have much to actually work with. Even R. Lee Ermey is kind of wasted by this film. He still definitely puts in the best performance and has the most material to work with, but compared to the previous film he’s much less enjoyable to watch. In the remake, he loves to taunt his victims and assert his control over them that way, whereas here he’s basically just an evil dick. The only time he really taunts someone is when he beats Dean during his pushups for freedom. He also doesn’t get nearly as many memorable or funny lines (although his first line after he shoots the sheriff is fantastic: “Shit I just killed the whole fuckin’ sheriff’s department”).

Andrew Bryniarski’s Leatherface is also not as interesting in this film. He certainly comes across as less experienced in this film, but we mostly get the same information the remake conveyed to us – people were mean to Leatherface and it caused him to lash out. This is demonstrated quite bluntly in the early parts of the film, where the slaughterhouse workers call him a dumb animal and the sheriff says that he’s retarded, both of which cause the obviously-intimidating Leatherface to become a raging, mad dog type character. It’s also kind of interesting to me that in this prequel the slaughterhouse is shut down because of health concerns. No longer is it a story about society and technology leaving rural people like Leatherface behind, it’s now about how they’re bad, disgusting people whose impoverishment is basically their own fault (doubly so when you consider that the owner of the slaughterhouse was also established as a bad person for not letting Leatherface’s mother give birth safely and for throwing the resulting baby in the dumpster). There isn’t really any sort of social commentary here anymore, it’s just about enigmatic evil people out there who mean to do us harm, and Leatherface’s toxic masculine rebirth in the remake duology is demonstrative of the dumbed-down, commercial direction this franchise took. Oh, I will add that Leatherface’s mask made from Eric’s face is pretty creepy, I like it a little bit less than the mask from the remake, but it’s certainly one of the better masks in the franchise.

Hell, I’m nearing the end of this review and I haven’t even mentioned that they rip off the dinner scene again in this one. It’s one of the better dinner scenes in the franchise, if only because we actually get some character development for the Hewitt family out of it. During the scene, Hoyt says grace and the family twists Bible verses in order to justify their actions. It is fairly interesting, but considering the merciless brutality we have seen out of this family, it really makes me wonder why the Hewitts would even invite their victims to dinner in the first place? There really isn’t a good reason other than to just reference the original film.

Suffice to say, I did not like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. I found its handling of brutal violence very distasteful. Look, I don’t mind a gory, brutal film, but I prefer when it’s not just suffering for the sake of suffering. Add in that this is a crappy rehash of the previous film with a crap script and I feel quite justified that I’m not just pillorying this film for simply not suiting my tastes. Literally, the only moment in this film that was truly a bright spot was when Eric uses a screaming, morbidly obese house guest as a barricade, but that is nowhere near worth sitting through the rest of the film to get to.

3/10

Be sure to tune in soon as we take a look at the seventh film in the franchise, Texas Chainsaw 3D!

Please follow and like us:

Retrospective: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

Welcome back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre retrospective! In today entry we’re going to be covering the Platinum Dunes remake, 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre! This is the film which kicked off the horror remake craze in the 2000s, for better or worse. It was also my first exposure to the franchise – I remember as a kid hearing about this movie from other kids on the bus talking about people getting their limbs chainsawed off and getting hung on a hook. Suffice to say, as a little evangelical kid it sounded like evil debauchery to me, but the imagery in my mind stuck with me and made me curious throughout the years until I finally saw the film. How does the remake hold up? Read on to find out…

I love this poster, it works because it gives us just enough creepy imagery but forces us to fill in the blanks with our imagination. Very similar to the poster for Hannibal.

PRODUCTION
After Columbia Tristar tried to bury Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, the rightsholders spent years in court before the whole fiasco was settled. During this time, William Hooper (son of Tobe Hooper) was planning on making a new Chainsaw short starring Bill Moseley. This film was going to be called “All American Massacre and would have featured Chop Top recounting stories of his family’s misdeeds. This short ended up getting expanded into a 60 minute feature with a score by Buckethead. However, it was eventually shelved when Hooper ran out of money to complete it, leaving the project in limbo where it currently resides, with only a short trailer proving it ever existed.

Late in 2001 Michael Bay’s new production company, Platinum Dunes, decided that they wanted their first project to be a remake of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and went ahead securing the rights. Platinum Dunes aimed t0 produce low-budget films with high profit margins and a Chainsaw remake seemed like the best way to test that. Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel were brought on a co-producers on the film. Marcus Nispel, a director of many high-profile music videos, was hired to direct the film. Interestingly, Nispel’s regular cinematographer and long-time friend, Daniel Pearl, was actually the cinematographer for the original Chainsaw. Pearl was also hired as director of photography for the remake. Scott Kosar, writer of such films as The Machinist, The Crazies and the remake of The Amityville Horror, made his scriptwriting debut on this film. He decided early on that the film shouldn’t be a direct remake of the original, but rather take the same scenario and use it as inspiration. He also went back to the story of Ed Gein for further influence.

Jessica Biel was cast to play the film’s heroine, Erin. Biel was just coming off of her role in 7th Heaven and (whether true or not) there was a perception that she was looking to shed her goody-goody image that the show had fostered. In earlier drafts of the script, Erin was actually supposed to be nine months pregnant which would have added an interesting dimension to the plot, but Michael Bay shot the idea down. Nispel claims that Erin is pregnant during the events of the film, but there is nothing in the film itself which suggests that this is the case. The principal cast were filled out with a number of young, up-and-coming actors: Eric Balfour was cast as Erin’s boyfriend, Kemper, Erica Leerhsen as Pepper, Mike Vogel as Andy, and Jonathan Tucker as Morgan. On the villainous side of the cast, freaking R. Lee Ermey was cast as Sheriff Hoyt. As for Leatherface, Andrew Bryniarski (most notable for playing Zangief in the Street Fighter movie) was a friend of Michael Bay’s and asked him at a Christmas party if he could play the role. However, Bay had to turn him down because Leatherface had already been cast. However, according to Wikipedia (so take this info as you will, I only found an interview that verifies this story) the actor who was cast as Leatherface was injured on the very first day of shooting after lying about his physical qualifications and was subsequently fired. In dire need of a replacement actor to play the villain, Byrniarski was called up and cast.

The film’s budget was set at less than $10 million and filming took place in Texas once again. Like all of the other Chainsaw films in Texas, this created the usual problems for the cast and crew, with hot and humid weather making life difficult. This was hardest on Bryniarski, as he had to perform in a fat suit and wore a mask during the entire shoot, making it difficult to breathe and forcing him to stay hydrated to avoid passing out. The film was released on October 17, 2003 and made its budget back within the first day. Suffice to say, it was a box office hit although the reviews at the time were mixed. Roger Ebert famously hated it, giving the film a rare 0/4 stars.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
The film opens with police footage of the “real life” crime scene of the Hewitt family (the name of the family has been changed from “Sawyer” in this timeline). It then flashes back to the events of that day and we are introduced to a group of young people travelling through Texas. The group has just returned from a vacation in Mexico, where they picked up a woman named Pepper who Andy has had a tryst with, and are headed to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. Erin discovers that the group is secretly smuggling drugs that they acquired during the trip south of the border and, after distracting her boyfriend, Kemper, about it, he nearly hits a woman walking beside the road. The group picks the woman up and tries to take her to the hospital, but she begins going crazy and shoots herself in the head. The group is, understandably, shocked and tries to find the local sheriff to report the incident. The locals direct them to an old mill to wait for the sheriff, but when he does not arrive, a local boy directs Kemper and Erin to a nearby house where he is supposed to live. When they arrive, the owner of the house says that the sheriff does not live here, but offers Erin use of his phone. Kemper then wanders into the house and is ambushed by Leatherface and killed. Erin leaves after phoning the sheriff, not realizing that Kemper had gone into the house and assuming that he went back to the others.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Hoyt arrives at the mill and begins taunting and questioning Andy, Morgan and Pepper about what happened. He forces Andy to help him wrap up the body and then gets Morgan to join in and help put the body in the back of his vehicle before leaving. Erin gets back after he has left and is surprised that the sheriff has already come and gone. She also is surprised that Kemper is not with the others and so she and Andy decide to return to the house to figure out what happened to Kemper. Erin distracts the homeowner while Andy sneaks into the house, but when they are discovered, Leatherface chases after the pair with a chainsaw. During the escape, Andy’s leg is sawed off by Leatherface and he is dragged into the basement to be hung on a meathook. Erin makes it back to the others and then tries to get the van started so that they can find help, but they are stopped by Sheriff Hoyt. Hoyt doesn’t listen to Erin’s stories about a chainsaw-wielding maniac killing her friends and instead arrests them after finding marijuana in the vehicle. He taunts Morgan, forcing him to re-enact the hitchhiker’s suicide until Morgan turns the gun on Hoyt. However, the gun is not loaded and Hoyt beats Morgan before taking him away in his squad car.

Now on their own, Erin and Pepper try to escape in the van, but are attacked by Leatherface. Pepper is killed while trying to escape, while Erin flees to a nearby home. The owners of the house try to placate her, until Erin realizes that they are complicit with the Hewitts – the child in this home was from a family killed by the Hewitts. The locals drug Erin and when she awakes she has been brought to the Hewitt house by Hoyt. She gets dumped into the basement by Leatherface where she finds Andy hanging from the meathook. After trying to free him, Andy begs Erin to kill him, which she does so using a large knife. She then finds Morgan, badly beaten, and tries to escape with him. Leatherface realizes that they are trying to escape and pursues them into another abandoned house. After a lengthy game of cat-and-mouse, Leatherface finds the pair and kills Morgan. Erin flees into the local slaughterhouse where she finally gets the upper-hand on Leatherface, severing his arm with a meat cleaver. She then flags a passing truck driver to escape, but when the driver tries to find locals to help her, she realizes that he’s going to inadvertently deliver her back to Hoyt. She escapes the truck and finds that they’re at the house with the kidnapped child. Erin takes the child back and then, when Hoyt comes to investigate the truck, she runs him over with his own police cruiser and escapes, but not before Leatherface shows up for one last swipe at the fleeing vehicle. In the epilogue, it is revealed that the police seen in the opening footage were killed by Leatherface and that he is still out there somewhere.

REVIEW
I don’t want to spend the bulk of this review comparing the remake with the original film, but suffice to say that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre strikes a good balance between original ideas and reverence to the original. One aspect of the remake which stands out is that it’s far more glitzy than any of the other Chainsaw films. This is likely due to the influence of Platinum Dunes, as Michael Bay is known for his flashy, flawless, Hollywood film-making aesthetic. Daniel Pearl was quite up-front about not wanting to recreate the grainy, documentary-style aesthetic of the original Chainsaw, but the differences go further than that. Whereas the original film and (to a lesser extent) its sequels had aimed for fairly normal-looking actors, the remake casts very pretty, Hollywood talent. The film also just feels different, no longer lingering on disturbing imagery and forcing the audience to piece a picture together from what they’ve seen. Instead, scares are far more conventional, edited in a disorienting fashion and set to “scary music”. Thankfully, the film doesn’t really rely on irritating jump scares, but regardless the horror is nowhere near as effective as it was in the original.

I was also surprised by how little gore there was in this film – I’ve seen this movie at least two or three times now and I remember it being far bloodier and nastier than it actually was. However, while the film is definitely far more explicit than the original film, it follows a similar philosophy of keeping the worst of the violence to your imagination. For example, Andy gets his leg chopped off very quickly and with only a little blood, Pepper gets hacked up with a chainsaw off-screen, Morgan gets cut nearly in half from the crotch upward off-screen, and Kemper’s face gets cut off and made into a mask entirely off-screen. In fact, the only truly R-rated scenes of violence are the hitchhiker shooting herself in the head (complete with a camera pan backwards through the freaking bullet hole) and Leatherface losing his arm, but the film is nowhere near as brutal as I remembered. This works in the film’s favour though, it makes you use your imagination to fill in the blanks, hence why I remembered the film being nastier than it actually was. Apparently the film was originally intended to be far more graphic though, with much more brutal on-screen kills for Morgan, Pepper and Kemper planned, and Leatherface was also supposed to murder his own nephew Jedidiah for helping Erin and Morgan escape (which presumably was cut due to it being too brutal for a kid to be killed).

As for the film’s script, it follows the outline of the original film in very broad strokes without straight-up ripping off any of the scenes (unlike all of the other sequels in this franchise, each of which have effectively remade the dinner scene). Like, instead of travelling to Texas to check in on their family’s grave, the group is heading to a concert. Instead of picking up a hitchhiker who attacks the group, the hitchhiker commits suicide in their car. Instead of stumbling across the Sawyer house while looking for gas, they find the Hewitt residence while searching for the sheriff. As you can see, the remake follows the same outline as the original, while also providing its own twists on the formula, which is a good direction to take a remake in my opinion. In fact, I’d argue that some of the additions are actually improvements (blasphemy, I know). In particular, the characters’ deaths feel like there is much more purpose to them in this film. In the original, the characters just kept wandering onto the Sawyers’ property and getting murdered because of that. In the remake, characters usually die for more interesting reasons. The characters come across the Hewitt house because they were told that that was where they could find the sheriff, which leads to Kemper getting ambushed by Leatherface. Andy gets his leg cut off because he broke into the Hewitt house trying to find Kemper and then gets mercy-killed by Erin. Pepper dies trying to escape Leatherface. Morgan dies saving Erin. I get that the purposelessness of the original film’s deaths is part of the point of that film, but I have to say that the remake’s deaths feel more satisfying from a narrative standpoint. There are also some interesting little additions to the film which I enjoyed, such as the peepholes that the Hewitts have installed around their house which allow them to spy on uninvited guests, having Erin’s rescue mirror the hitchhiker’s suicide from the start of the film and that the whole community seems to be complicit with the Hewitts’ crimes now.

However, the script has some definite issues and is also noticeably messy and disappointing in its third act. The film is really solid up until Erin is kidnapped and brought to the Hewitt house, at which point it starts to nosedive. For one thing, there are just too many dumb conveniences here. Like, when Leatherface tossed Erin into the basement unrestrained, what was he expecting to happen? Of course she was going to free Morgan and try to escape. In addition, Jedidiah’s character is just super convenient. For no explicable reason he suddenly decides to grow a conscience and help Erin and Morgan escape. It also doesn’t help that the third act doesn’t bother to give us any motivation for the villains. There’s nothing to suggest that the Hewitts are cannibals, they just kill people… because, I guess? Funnily enough, as much as I rag on Chainsaw films ripping off the dinner scene every time, this film actually needed a dinner scene, or an emotional equivalent, in its third act. Instead, we just get an extended chase sequence for the entire last half hour of the film. Imagine if the original Chainsaw had ended with Sally running away from the gas station for another 10 minutes after finding out Drayton is a villain and then the film just ends – obviously it wouldn’t have anywhere near the same impact, but that’s basically what this film does. While I’m glad that they didn’t just rip off the dinner scene again, this film definitely needed some sort of scene with Hoyt taunting Erin and a giving us better understanding of what the Hewitts are up to. I’m also not a huge fan of the ending – between Erin rescuing the kidnapped kid that no one really cared about in the first place and her confrontation with Hoyt, it isn’t that great. Her reaction to killing Hoyt felt weird to me because the two characters barely interacted throughout the film – all of his emotional abuses were directed towards the other characters, whereas Erin was usually absent, so it doesn’t really resonate as well as it should. Also, the rescued kid felt totally tacked on, possibly all the way back to the draft where Erin was nine-months pregnant. Having her somehow sneak in and rescue this kid was just pointless, like the producers wanted to force some sort of ray of sunshine into the ending.

Something else odd that I noticed about the remake is that it follows traditional slasher morality codes more than any other entry in the franchise up to this point. For example, Erin is our final girl because she’s the only member of the group who follows traditional morality – she objects to the group’s post smoking and excessive drinking and she always insists on doing the “moral” action (rescuing the hitchhiker, waiting for the sheriff to arrive to take the body, etc). During the opening scene, she is contrasted against the pot-smoking Morgan, the furiously horny Andy and Pepper and the moral conflict of Kemper. However, this is also a cruel irony because she is also the reason why everyone else dies – as Hoyt himself says, if she hadn’t picked up the hitchhiker, then they wouldn’t have gotten into this mess in the first place. It’s kind of interesting to consider that in the remake compassion is what gets everyone killed, not simply that the villains are evil.

The film has far less going on in it than the original, but it does notably carry on the theme of society vs barbarism from the first film. Notably, the Texas locals in this film all have some sort of deformity to them, from missing limbs, to gout, to just being sheer lunatics. These deformities are contrasted even more obviously than in the original due to the remake’s much more glamorous and pretty cast. Funnily enough, when I saw the kidnapped kid I was actually going to make a note that this was the first local we had seen which was actually “normal” looking, until it was revealed that this child was actually kidnapped from “civilized” society, a fact which pretty much signifies that this distinction was totally intentional. With this in mind, rescuing the kid at the end is thematically significant to the message of the film, as tacked-on as that part of the ending may seem. I wonder whether the post-9/11 climate helped to inform the tone of the film, where not only is compassion being taken advantage of by evil people, but society and its deviant fringes are colliding violently.

As for the characters, it seems to me that they are all quite flat in the script and only really gain any weight from the people playing them. Luckily for the film, I actually quite liked most of the performances, but when I think back on the characters themselves I realize that there isn’t really much to any of them. Jessica Biel’s Erin makes for a pretty great and capable final girl, probably the second best in the franchise after Stretch. However, she isn’t exactly a compelling character and the revelation that this very moral character spent time in juvie for hot-wiring vehicles comes across as pretty convenient. After her, Kemper is probably the next most compelling, in part due to Eric Balfour’s performance. He really sells the character’s conflict without having to rely on the material to get that across – he’s trying to get money to pay for a wedding ring he purchased for Erin, but in order to do so he is planning on selling pot at the Lynyrd Skynyrd concert they’re attending, a fact which Erin does not approve of. After the hitchhiker kills herself in their vehicle, his plans start to come apart at the seams and it’s interesting seeing him have to make his decisions and juggle the various factors weighing on him. It’s just really sad to see him die, and then later for Erin to see Leatherface wearing her boyfriend’s face is just traumatic. Andy also gets enjoyable in the second half of the film. The first half wastes him as a generic pretty boy, but by the time he joins Erin to try to rescue Kemper, he gets much more interesting. He even gets a short fight with Leatherface before getting his leg chopped off, at which point I just feel really sorry for him. I really like Mike Vogel and I think that his performance is what makes me like Andy so much, it’s just too bad he doesn’t get much to work with. As for Pepper and Morgan? Meh. Morgan is just a total douche, whereas Pepper really doesn’t get much of a character at all.

The villains are where things really shine though. While Sheriff Hoyt is also a rather flat character, R. Lee Ermey turns him into an absolute joy to watch, nearly on par with Chop Top. He isn’t just a rip-off of Full Metal Jacket’s Sargeant Hartman either. Instead of being just abrasive, Hoyt gets a hoot out of being sadistic dick. He loves to taunt his victims and lord himself over them, such as when he makes inappropriately sexual jokes about the hitchhiker’s corpse just to make Andy uncomfortable. He’s also a total bastard when taunting people, most notably when Hoyt tricks Morgan into trying to shoot him, only to reveal that he had unloaded the gun first. He can also be darkly hilarious – during one scene he’s chatting up Morgan and when Morgan tells him that they were heading to a Skynyrd concert, Hoyt tells him that they have something in common. Then he bashes Morgan with a bottle, knocking out a tooth, which causes him to show that he’s missing his front teeth and say that now they have something else in common. It’s nasty, but the way that Ermey sells it is fantastic. Unsurprisingly, he straight-up steals every scene he’s in and the fact that he died in the last year leaves us all poorer as a result.

As for Leatherface, Andrew Bryniarski’s performance is the best since Gunnar Hansen and his mask is also by far the best-looking since the original film, in my opinion . He has a great physical presence and is genuinely frightening to see pursuing the heroes. The character has also been changed a fair bit in this incarnation. He does seem to be mute, but he does not seem to be mentally handicapped anymore; he’s far more cunning and purposeful in his actions than he ever has been. Leatherface also has some sort of skin disease which has eaten away his nose. It actually looks quite nasty and marks the first time we see the character’s face in this series. Also, instead of killing to eat or to defend his home, Leatherface just seems to be evil and going on a rampage in this film. According to director Marcus Nispel, Leatherface is so sadistic and evil because… he was bullied? No seriously, here’s the quote:

“If my son would go mad and wear other people’s faces, I wouldn’t be supportive of him *unless* something happened to him – a deformity or whatever – that is being ridiculed. I think about that a great deal when I think about Columbine. I wonder, ‘Where are the real monsters?’ Who made these kids be that way? […] Now, here’s someone who has no identity, so he has to wear other people’s faces for a mask. People that heckled him. People that are much more beautiful than he is, and a family that knows what drove him to this; namely, that heckling. And that’s why they support him. […] But what really makes it scary is that he’s a real guy – the neighbor’s son on a wild rampage.”

Umm, okay… I get that this was very much inspired by all of the conversations in the aftermath of Columbine, but I really don’t see this as a reasonable motivation for the character to be killing people, let alone why Hoyt would be joining in on it or why the locals would be complicit in his actions. Seriously, this film needed some sort of actual justification for the Hewitt family’s crimes, it just feels like they’re only killing people because they’re evil now. Cannibalism was a commentary on the climate of its time, so perhaps the lack of motivation reflects on the post-9/11 confusion about the causes of evil in the world?

All-in-all, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a decent horror remake. It definitely has its issues and the material could have been much stronger, but it’s a pretty enjoyable watch and is quite well-made, especially compared to the horror remakes which tried to ape its success. If more remakes that followed in its wake had actually followed its strengths, then perhaps the trend would not have been as reviled as it came to be.

5.5/10

Be sure to tune in again soon as we take a look at the sixth entry in the franchise, the prequel to the remake, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning!

Please follow and like us: