Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Survivalist

There is a moment not far from the conclusion of The Survivalist that perfectly captures the essence of Stephen Fingleton’s raw, hypnotic and masterful debut feature. Mia Goth’s Milja — an impassive and steel-cored young woman, as hardy as she is damaged — gathers herself, naked, before the flames of a stove, opens her legs and attempts a form of medieval self-surgery so horrifying that it sends silent tears rolling down her otherwise calm features. 

To provide details is to ruin the film’s delicately constructed conclusion, though, in truth, this particular experience merely keeps track with the overall tone. Unflinchingly honest, stylish in its delivery, Fingleton’s muscular arrival as an auteur of singular poise is both a dystopian fable and a chilling examination of the brutalities lying dormant within humanity’s animal self. In its own quiet way, this is a test of endurance; like it or loathe it, embrace the grim premise or be repulsed, there is no escaping its power. 

The director has labelled his piece an ‘anti-science fiction film’; the description is apt. His is a picture of glowering immediacy, based not on an Earth that is dying but one that feels and sounds alive, shorn of the humans who once decimated it. Set in the wake of an unspecified, slow-burning, never-discussed global catastrophe — one which may yet be ongoing — Martin McCann’s eponymous loner (nameless throughout) lives a dismal existence in a remote forest, barely drawing sustenance from the land surrounding his small cabin. 

McCann’s life is an ugly hand-to-mouth scramble, beset by meagre resources and an ever-present threat of outsiders seeking to steal his supplies. Indeed, the initial third is a spartan affair, light on dialogue and exposition, carrying Fingleton’s vision ever forward, pausing only to take in the distance between this life and our own contemporary understanding of civilisation. For all the bucolic, sun-dappled elegance of the setting (Ballymoney in July, to be exact), that milieu replete with a lush verdancy captured lovingly by cinematographer Damien Elliot, a darkness of place and mood festers in the near background. 

The first words of a spare script are uttered when Milja and her mother, Kathryn (Irish thesp Olwen Fouéré), stumble upon the woodland homestead seeking food and refuge. Of course, in this post-collapse landscape, everything has a price, thus Kathryn pimps her daughter in exchange for the Survivalist’s hospitality and Milja, clearly familiar with the drill, happily obliges so as to enjoy his protection. 

Interestingly, from this point, some measure of domestic tranquillity descends on proceedings, Kathryn and Milja settling in to aid their host in the upkeep of his humble holding as the latter woman exploits his basic need for human contact. Perhaps unsurprisingly, and never to be forgotten, survival is at the core of every character’s motivation. Fingleton’s world is ruthless, its people press on for one simple reason: because they must. 

In technical terms, much of The Survivalist is mesmerising, laced with an air of swaggering confidence that belies its creator’s relative inexperience. One bravura scene, wordless and bristling with tension, plays out in an eerie grassland that ripples with violence and the hum of nature. The beautiful floating crane shot at the centre of the sequence belongs in a project afforded more than the relatively modest £1 million budget entrusted to Fingleton, who squeezes every penny from the coffers. Impressively, nothing in this lean beast of a film is rushed. Only short, sharp bouts of peril puncture the sombre ambience as days and, apparently, even months pass without comment. Furthermore, his frank tale often veers away from cheap thrills, with gratuitous savagery or sex being ignored, hinted at instead of pored over. 

Forming a formidable trio, then, the main players convince as denizens of tomorrow’s planet. In the lead role, McCann is excellent, carrying the movie for much of its 104 minutes. The Belfast actor — twitchy, gimlet-eyed, entirely capable — displays an unsettling intensity, a signature edge that is utterly believable in the context of his character, and accomplishes the substantial task of making a man unburdened by softness, plagued by encroaching delusions, seem almost sympathetic. 

Beside him, Fouéré is every inch his equal, her long snowy hair and watchful gaze casting her as some kind of woodland sorceress come to claim this patch. Goth, meanwhile, is fascinating in her inscrutability. Best known from Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, she turns in a performance as brave as McCann’s: steady and resourceful. A true child of the post-apocalypse, Milja possesses a keen instinct that even her mother fails to comprehend and her struggle ultimately comes to the fore. 

In spite of the film's startling accomplishments, this is not without flaws. As bracing as it is, trading in potential realities rather than fantasies, that which serves as an underlying ecological message is quickly abandoned. A clever opening graphic depicts the relationship between population growth and international oil production, yet it is the only context in a film otherwise lacking broader themes. This sits awkwardly in hindsight, an element that is left unexplored save for McCann’s parsimonious attitude to his own fuel stocks. The finale, too, features a band of marauders who may well be more significant than their screen time suggests.

The good far outweighs the weaker ingredients, however. A former fixture on Hollywood’s Black List of challenging unmade screenplays, The Survivalist would appear to be worth the wait, undoubtedly the film that Derry native Fingleton wished to conjure.

In the past month, he has taken his work to both the Tribeca and Belfast film festivals, important showcases for a film that has no cuddly edges to attract the masses. Let us hope that such progress earns it wider exposure. This needs to be seen.

An edited version of this article was first published here.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

John Wick

John Wick (2015)

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Michael Nyqvist, Adrianne Palicki, Lance Reddick

Director: Chad Stahelski & David Leitch

Available on: Amazon Prime

The name John Wick is hardly one to invoke images of terror and twitchy paranoia. It's a bland moniker, one that might attach to your bank manager, the owner of a friendly family bakery or the retired neighbour who mows his lawn twice a day. John Wick just doesn't seem very frightening. 

Think again. As the eponymous avenging angel of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch's debut directing gig, Wick's name alone strikes cold fear into the souls of his enemies. It appears, in this sumptuous, neon-drenched context at least, to represent true darkness. 

In the lead role, Keanu Reeves, remarkably, casts aside the dross that has littered his career since the spectacular highs of The Matrix and its potty sequels. As taciturn as usual, his brand of impassive anger fills the void into which a lean narrative might otherwise descend. To see the erstwhile Neo scything through hordes of villains is to be deeply impressed and reminded of the actor's magnetic appeal in the right setting. 

And what a setting it is. Uncompromising, unspeakably ruthless, Wick explodes from the frame, the roiling mass at the centre of a rippling actioner that occasionally reaches visceral high watermarks once thought lost to mainstream American cinema. 

The story, a simple one, is not wholly unfamiliar, though previous iterations are unlikely to have featured this amount of sophisticated mayhem. When the widowed Wick's quiet life is upended by an act of gratuitous violence, courtesy of identikit noveau riche mobster brat Iosef (Alfie Allen), the demon slips its shackles. Iosef's petulance unleashes upon himself, and his Russian crime lord father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), a spirit of coldly determined rage intent on claiming their blood. The incoming threat is both a retired mafia assassin and a whisper-inducing gangland boogeyman who would have Hades locking his doors at night. 

Interestingly, however, Wick seeks his several pounds of flesh not for the loss of a beloved wife, but for the brutal slaying of the adorable beagle puppy she bequeathed him, and the theft of the '69 Mustang in which he drives out his deep-seated torment. 

Like the Reeves-starring Speed before it, John Wick lives and dies by the strength of its own searing kineticism. With its near balletic gunplay and a sense of grimy savagery lingering beneath the shiny surface  a metaphor best exemplified by the Continental hotel, a luscious underworld Shangri-La catering exclusively to the film's stylish circus of professional killers  this is a forceful first offering from a directing duo who made their bones as stunt coordinators. 

Their set pieces are precise and brutal, fun-filled guilty pleasures captured with gliding, unblinking detail and laced with a refreshing dose of cheeky irreverence.