Cold War

‘No, no, I won’t marry a master, I’ll marry someone of my ilk.’ These words, sung with mournful defiance early on in Cold War, declare the central problem of the relationship we see unfolding. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), pianist and government archivist of Polish music, and Zula (Joanna Kulig), an impulsive runaway, are not of the ‘same ilk’. He exoticizes her as a peasant angel; she dismisses him as an effete bourgeoise. His God is music; she’s a pious Catholic. He flits among the unctuous elite; she craves bodily communion. He wants to escape Poland; she can never really leave. And there is something very powerful (yet unsayable) between them: class, yes, but more than class, suffering.

‘Is this a God-given love or one from the devil?’ Wiktor travels through Poland recording this traditional, ‘peasant-style’ music. Most is about doomed or forbidden love, the faces that sing them wearied by the terrible war that’s just ended. The plaintive nostalgia is of a piece with all folk music, but the beauty of these humble songs will be a revelation to those unfamiliar with the language. Under the instruction of the new Communist government, Wiktor establishes a school to cultivate and promote this great reservoir of music. One of the girls who auditions is Zula, and so begins their romance, conducted in the initial period through shared glances in rehearsals.

During a meeting that signals the group’s transition from a repository of Polish culture to an arm of Stalin’s propaganda machine, a bureaucrat suggests they produce music about land reform and international peace. Wiktor’s colleague protests: country people don’t sing about agricultural policy or global politics. One of the cadre corrects them: they will sing about those things, with direction. In the next scene we see the choir, straighter and more uniform, singing a sycophantic number about the ‘leader of the proletariat’. Stalin’s moustache rises behind the stage, consuming the screen. Pawlikowski never uses historical exposition; here he shows the transition to state repression and, ten years later, he shows us the piecemeal liberalisations after Stalin’s death. The characters never express any political opinions, and their lives are, for the most part, exceptional, far removed from ordinary social life, yet Pawlikowski communicates some subtle facts about post-war Poland.

Pawlikowski puts generic interactions inside complex historical contexts, and then inside something much more mysterious: the contradictory flows of feelings between the two protagonists. ‘I’ll be with you until the end of the world,’ Zula says, her head resting on Wiktor’s lap. Then she admits to ‘ratting’ on him, sharing details about his beliefs and habits to a senior cadre. He storms off, and she jumps into a lake; her head pokes through the water as she floats along singing a folk ballad. In the next scene they are together, gazing at each other through the spitting embers of a campfire. There was reconciliation, but we don’t see it. It’s as if the song magnetised him to her. Or perhaps it was the landscape. Despite the minimalism of Pawlikowski greyscale box, he’s often shamelessly romantic, drawn, with whimsical fondness, towards scraps of beauty. Does he see a parallel between Polish music and the love between our heroes? They are both wild, pre-modern and primordial. There is, in the early stages, an honest attempt to elevate these goods on the part of the Communist regime. But ultimately the state is suspicious of them: Pawlikowski suggests that both love and music are hard to accommodate, or to understand, under Stalinism.

Zula and Wiktor plot an escape to Paris, but she jilts him. It’s a tense, bitter sequence. He waits on street corners, smoking. She stays inside, drinking. They later meet in Paris, and we learn that she didn’t think it would work: she wasn’t ‘good enough’. For a brief section we’re transported to a Before-style idyll of love among European landmarks. They take a boat down the Seine, and the lovers watch each other watching kissing couples on the banks. This is the third time they’ve met out of the blue, and this time they abandon themselves to each other. Things soon fall apart. Zula conforms just enough to survive, but aggression, desire and alienation spill over the edges.

Kulig’s performance, shimmying between self-possession and whimsy, is a riposte to the condescension towards Eastern Europe that Zula finds everywhere. And the complexity of what she wants is a riposte to the smoky, duplicitous women of film noir. When she first auditions, Wiktor thinks she’s a fraud and a chancer. In order to sell her to bohemia and win a record deal, he exaggerates her darkness and mystery. Zula is always battling against her partner's projections. When Wiktor's sent back to Paris after visiting her in Yugoslavia, a Polish agent scoffs, ‘Femme fatale, huh?’

Leave No Trace

In the primitives-meet-civilization formula, outsiders are rescued from the wild, and assimilated into society; the world teaches them, and, in a more profound way, the savages edify the world. Fish out of water scenes abound: struggles with tax returns and Tinder, lessons about curfews and selfies.

Leave No Trace does not hue to this structure. Father and daughter, Will and Tom, are rescued from the wild; or, more accurately, they are forcibly relocated from their homely camp in a national park to a bungalow on a farm that produces Christmas trees. We see some adjustments to normal life – Tom makes friends, Will goes to work – but the film is less interested in the contrasts between wilderness and society than in the continuity Will and Tom find all around them. 

Director Debra Granik connects the family’s nomadic existence with a living network of Americans surviving outside the nine-to-five: squatters, truck drivers and other itinerant workers, isolated cabins, and trailer communities. Some of those who choose to live outside the state are survivalists or doomsdayers, white supremacists or cranks. Not all. Many just see through the bogus promise of life inside the system. After all, the wilderness liberates you from your boss, as well as the tax man.

There’s a cruel irony to Will’s own homespun libertarianism. After the family are forced into a more typical living arrangement, his comforting refrain to his daughter is: ‘we can still think our own thoughts’. But it’s Will’s thoughts that are the problem. After a tour in the army, nightmares haunt his sleep, and he’s weighed down by intrusive thoughts. In an ominous early scene, Tom lingers at a stall for veterans. She picks up a piece of plastic, and the man behind the desk explains that it’s a safety device for a gun, ‘in case the vet is going to harm someone… or commit something even worse’. Later she looks at a newspaper clipping from her dad’s file. The headline reads, ‘A Battalion Stalked by Suicide.’ Civilized America is unable to provide the complex help for someone suffering PTSD and raising a child alone. For Will, nature, constant movement and solitude are the only palliatives.

Tom is stoic, loving, occasionally wise, and occasionally brittle. The central questions of Leave No Trace – it’s an inquisitive, probing film – are as much about her autonomy as they are about trauma, family, home, the role of the state and the advantages of community. The ending – quietly devastating – provides no firm answers.

120 BPM (Beats per Minute)

Robin Campillo’s 120 BPM establishes a three-part ritual: the meeting, the protest, the nightclub. We’re debating strategy in the weekly assembly of HIV-AIDS action group, ACT UP Paris. Was throwing blood-red paint and handcuffing a speaker at a medical conference too violent? Is dialogue with opponents possible or desirable? Should ACT UP advocate prison for Pharma execs? The intermittent cacophony of clicking fingers suggests no consensus. There is discord over tactics, but unity in the goal: forcing the French government and medical companies to accelerate research into producing a viable cure. Then there’s direct action: teach-ins, occupations, chanting, arrests. And from the streets to the club. A piano riff, which earlier signalled melancholy, is paired with a percussive rhythm. It now signals something else. The nightclub reminds us of the eminently political and queer roots of dance music: the darkness, strobed with light, casts a unique shade of anonymity and transformation.

Within this tripartite structure – organise-protest-dance – we spend time with the ACT UP cadre. They are movement leaders, but not quite the film’s protagonists; the narrative arc will outstretch many of their lives. Those who are ‘seropositif’ slowly atrophy, faint during meetings, and eventually die. In an intimate love scene between the ailing Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), who has managed to stay free from infection, Sean speaks about his mother, whose photograph looks down on the couple. It isn’t a post or pre-coital discussion; it’s mid-coital, and they carry on fucking afterwards. Of the whole ensemble of ACT UP activists, Sean’s is the only house we’re invited into, but he remains mysterious. In a cigarette break during a fiery discussion, the couple quiz each other on their comrades’ occupations. ‘What’s your job?’, Nathan asks awkwardly. ‘I’m poz, that’s it’. We know these people purely in their roles as protestors, ravers and mourners. In a dramatic action at the end, they dance and scatter a comrade’s ashes at a medical insurance dinner, playing all of these parts at once. The ashes – no more than dust swirling in the wind – call back to an earlier dancefloor when the camera focuses on particles that rise from the sweating bodies. These characters leave a physical trace of themselves. The camera zooms in on these specks, and, drifting through the pounding blackness, they finds a virus, malignant and squirming.

Another member is a history student. In a smart montage, we hear him recite a paper on the 1848 European revolts over real documentary footage of ACT UP’s protests, placing the social movement in a radical tradition. In a spectacular action, fantasised by Sean on his hospital bed, the river Seine is dyed a deep red: blood and death, but also revolution. The film is revolutionary when it finds the ecstatic moment of activism: breaking the law, finding solidarity and winning justice. 120 BPM is a great antidote to the saccharine Pride (2014) or the reactionary Dallas Buyers Club (2013). But there is also something melancholic about the film’s politics. ACT UP’s loquacious Secretary visits Sean in hospital to ask why Sean’s never liked him. Sean is too sick to answer properly, but the audience knows anyway. There are political divisions between the two. Sean is committed to the ‘prisoners, prostitutes and drug addicts’. The Secretary believes that they need to make their campaign accessible in order to gain popular support. It’s a substantial disagreement. There’s conflict over strategy too: Sean wants militant direct action, while the Secretary hasn’t given up on dialogue. Campillo provides a double mourning at the film’s close: for those who died, and for Sean’s politics – contentious, uncompromising, focused on the most marginalized – which also seem terminal. The Secretary’s agenda, on the other hand, will be comfortably assimilated into the sleek portfolios of NGOs, inclusive business and government. 

A Quiet Place

Protect your family and property from the unknown. Like so many horror films, the logic of John Krassinski’s A Quiet Place (2018) doubles as a Reaganite election slogan. The film is a home invasion flick with aliens. Its preoccupation with listening links it to Don’t Breathe and Hush (both 2016), but unlike the best of the genre it never plays with our points of sympathy. The slogan pounds till the bitter end: family and home, family and home. The film’s salvation is that it performs certain genre steps with grandeur. Relationships change through action. Characters don’t just win by killing their enemies; they win by becoming new people. And the use of noise becomes as much a meditation on suspense as a function of the plot.

The exhalation of breath. A twig breaking. Sound is always a fundamental sense in horror, but Krassinski has elevated it to a high-concept survival principle. The film takes place in woods overrun by blind beasts that devour anything that attracts them with sound. Family life in this depopulated world is ordered around silence.

Our family has a neat symmetry: mother (Emily Blunt) and father (Krassinski), daughter and son. Through the speechless play and conflict, dynamics of resentment and distrust emerge. The daughter battles guilt, absorbing her dad’s sadness, and the son struggles to live up to his expectations. But there is a warmth in Krassinski’s world that implies these complications are weaker than the duty of care and love. Unlike other recent apocalyptic visions – The Survivalist (2015), It Comes at Night (2017) or We Are the Flesh (2016) – A Quiet Place doesn’t engage with any social unit greater than the family. We only meet one outsider, and his presence is brief, threatening and unpleasant. Krassinski is not interested in testing the limits of compassion or self-interest; family bonds have an absolute sacrificial quality that voids these questions.

Pregnancy and the promise of a messy birth and a loud baby hang over the second half of the picture. We’re miles from the self-conscious transgressions of Mother! (2017), where a baby is used as a kind of a crescendo to a bacchanal of bloody anarchy. And Krassinksi’s film doesn’t fall in the same nasty category as The Hills Have Eyes (1977), where the stakes are established when cannibals steal a baby. The characters here know they are bringing a child into a dangerous world. They know it’s a reckless thing to do. Nevertheless, when the baby comes, he gives strength to the mother, gives her a reason to stay agile, and establishes a new order among the family.

The interplay between sound design (some of which is overwrought), music and silence drives the suspense. In a moving early scene, the mother slips a headphone in the father’s ear, and they dance to “Harvest Moon”. The transition to music, to their subjective worlds, is deeply intimate, and a rare instance of a genre film giving its actors space and stillness. The function of quietude heightens your appreciation of the layers of sound to the point where ambient noises become atmospheric and dreadful. This sensitivity builds to the matriarchal finale, a satisfying rush of rhythmic editing involving screeches, a swelling distortion and the pump of a shotgun.

Tomb Raider

In the first scene of Tomb Raider, Lara Croft (Alicia Virkander) is pulverized in an MMA spar. A set piece soon after almost upstages everything to come. Lara’s broke, delivering takeaways. Tempted by the cash prize, she volunteers as the target in a game which involves her biking through Shoreditch and the City, while dozens of male cyclists try to catch her. It’s brilliant parkour choreography, with a reclaim-the-streets feel somewhere between Capture the Flag and Critical Mass. Lara loses focus and hits a cop car, splattering it with red paint. In a parallel universe, our hero remains the MMA-fighting London courier: radicalised by her encounter with the police, she organises her fellow delivery workers against the bosses and the state – a city opera with 94 million dollars’ worth of extras, explosions and car chases! But not in this world.

Lara is heir to a fortune, which she refuses to collect believing her father is still alive. Dad did little to build the wealth (too preoccupied with ancient Japanese myths), so presumably it’s hereditary. ‘Crofts always have responsibilities,’ her dad chimes in a conscience voiceover. Are they a one family Freemason lodge? The business empire – housed in a Canary Wharf skyscraper – is reminiscent of Wayne Enterprises. Lara is an oh-so British Batman. The plot chugs along, and we arrive at the Japanese island where her dad disappeared seven years earlier. By this point the film has a pounding by-numbers feel. What it can’t transpose from the video game is the tension and playfulness of the problem-solving. Virkander meets the extreme physical demands of the role, but regularly loses confidence in her face, abandoning one reaction for two or three in confused succession. But, like the best heroes, Lara is motivated by self-discovery rather than duty. She’s fallible. And – in a series of action sequences that are never violent or leery – rushing rivers, cliff edges, and ancient booby-traps are all dominated by her sheer, exhilarating strength. 

A Fantastic Woman

The opening credits roll over a waterfall. Four cascades crash into a foamy, white centre. This image of violent flux will be applied many times to the face and body of Marina (Daniela Vega): her countenance wobbles in the reflection of a mirror held up by two workers; she’s disfigured by the pulsing lights – red, white, red, white – of a nightclub; her face is pulled into a hideous gurn by sellotape wrapped violently around her head. Marina is a trans woman. These images show an identity that’s provisional, interrogative, underdetermined. And the people she comes into contact with – desperate for simplicity and fixedness – find this ongoing flux uncomfortable. One accusation becomes a refrain: ‘I don’t know who you are.’ 

After her partner dies, she is forced to defend her legitimacy to his family and the state. His ex-wife calls her a pervert and a chimera. Marina’s boss – otherwise a comradely figure – reproaches her for being mysterious. If she is enigmatic, sometimes to the point of inscrutability, it’s because Chilean society has taught her to guard against an attack that is always imminent. People, especially state officials, are so cruel, and so casual about it: they use her old, male name; they watch while she undresses; they refuse to acknowledge she had a ‘healthy, loving, consensual relationship’.

There are scenes where she negotiates conflict through exactitude, wearing a mask of desperate civility. The most memorable sees her walking through a sauna, transitioning from female to male, passing as both, in order to open her partner’s locker. It’s a brilliantly suspenseful use of gender fluidity. Elsewhere, she is triumphant. She fights for custody of her dog and she wins, and in the end she is able to resume her life. As the title of the film announces, the tone is celebratory. Marina is a FANTASTIC WOMAN, not some opaque, amorphous chimera. Vega was by all accounts an integral part of the creative process, and her character vibrates with life, especially in the scenes of tenderness. Early on, she’s in love, singing, laughing, having sex. The scenes between her and her piano teacher feel sincerely intimate; he sermonises, ‘You don’t ask for love or peace. You say “let me be your instrument of love, let me be your vessel of peace”’. And – most powerful of all – there is the magical realist song-and-dance sequence, when she seems to inhabits her flesh in a grand and perfect way. The discoteque atmosphere is unusually exhilarating, managing to communicate the spontaneous thrill of the sesh, an almost prefigurative moment. 

It’s not a perfect film, but at this point in the culture it’s an important film: a celebration of survival, performed with the rhythm of resistance. 

The Square

Ruben Östlund clearly thinks that he deals in unpalatable truths. In Play (2011), a gang of mendacious black kids find themselves protected from the consequences of their actions by the buffer of political correctness; in Force Majeure (2014), postmodern society is presented as a force that conspires to emasculate men; and in The Square (2017), class, race and freedom of speech are obstacles in a successful man's career. 

Christian (Claes Bang) is the well-meaning chief curator of Stockholm's premier museum of modern art, who wrongly accuses a working class kid of stealing his wallet, sleeps with a journalist who interviews him (Elisabeth Moss adding depth to the shallow role of unhinged lover), and is forced to resign over a controversial viral video campaign. There are a few funny set pieces, but a few too many tired jokes about conceptual art's dense intellectualism. In a centrepiece scene, which is supposed to exemplify the cruel indifference of Europe's bourgeoisie towards suffering, a performance artist unveils an elderly Muslim woman against her will while high society onlookers do nothing. 

There is nothing here that Michael Haneke or fellow Swede Roy Andersson have not done before with more originality. The Square tries to both be a provocation and about provocation, but it is less interested in the social relations it sketches than in the individualist problem of what a man can or cannot supposedly do or say. Politics is treated as etiquette. The Sisyphean ending provides existentialist gloss, but Östlund's viewers are likely to be comforted by it, for it suggests that nothing can be done to change society and that there is something elegant, artful even, in the meaninglessness of men's lives.

You Were Never Really Here

You Were Never Really Here (2017) does more than subvert or reject genre. Director Lynne Ramsay has turned pulp into 90-minute-Dostoyevsky, draining it of action or fun. In other words, she has humiliated genre. There are fight scenes – with Oldboy (2003) style hammer action! – but they’re abstracted onto CCTV monitors, jerky and monochrome. The protagonist – Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) – does have cool one-liners, but they are muffled under his beard and self-loathing. The implicit accusation is that these are tawdry thrills.

Ramsay is a master of ambiguity. In her latest the uncertainty revolves around the interior life of Joe, the hitman who finds new purpose rescuing a girl who’s been kidnapped and forced into sex work. He’s tender and gruff – I thought of Pauline Kael’s line about Robert Mitchum: his belly becomes an honorary chest. The ambiguity creeps around Joe’s emotional life. Does he identify as victim or abuser? Does he want to live or die? Is violence a burden or release? The indeterminacy the audience grapples with matches the indeterminacy of Joe’s thoughts. You may, in fact, start thinking a bit like Joe – somewhere between giving up and absolute commitment. On the other hand, You Were Never Really Here abandons ambiguity in favour of some explanations as to Joe’s behaviour. Unlike her two previous literary adaptations, Morvern Callar (2002) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), you leave the cinema with a sense of arriving at something definitive. Ramsay is still best placed to emulate the exquisite ambiguity of Claire Denis, and make the kind of films that demand continual interpretation.

There’s still a lot to admire. Ramsay beautifies objects and textures that most directors would pass over as mundane. During a chat with one of his employers, Joe crushes a Skittle between his thumb and forefinger, making an earthquake on the sweet’s sugar coating. There is a preponderance of plastic, and the material has rarely been as haunting or ethereal. Joe asphyxiates himself with carrier bags. He picks the cellophane off a roll of masking tape. And – in the film’s crowning scene – he faces his mother’s body, wrapped in a bin bag, as they sink to the bottom of a lake. A few strands of hair peek out of the black plastic, which becomes eerily fluid illuminated by one piercing bottom light. Flashbacks of war and childhood abuse transform ordinary spaces – closets and cars – into repositories of fear and resentment.

The representation of the sex industry in popular culture needs much more discussion. There is a tendency within thrillers to use child abduction, paedophile rings, and abuse as contexts for the action. The stakes are then taken to be built in to the scenario. In this case, this is in the service of building Joe’s complex character – giving him an opportunity for meaning and redemption. But it would be wrong to think that, just because Ramsay’s objective is worthier than cheap entertainment, her cursory usage of the sex industry is acceptable. You Were Never Really Here falls into the trap of depicting the most obviously abhorrent, extreme part of the sex industry – powerful men abducting children and keeping them as sedated slaves in brothels – in order to simplify the morality of the picture. The film doesn’t show any interest in the specificities of the real world. Ramsay has the same vague stance towards the politicians who run the brothel. It becomes a conspiratorial web of congressman and traffickers, but lacks the detail to indict any part of society, or the compassion to understand any of the people involved.

I, Tonya

‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Dire Straits, ‘The Passenger’ as covered by Siouxsie and the Banshees,  ‘Goodbye Stranger’ by Supertramp, ‘The Chain’ by Fleetwood Mac, ‘Gloria’ by Laura Branigan – the soundtrack does a lot of the work in I, Tonya (2017). We tap our feet through the Scorsese-lite set-pieces, as the biopic leaps between sports film, crime caper and violent family drama. The Olympic wunderkind Tonya Harding bears the brunt of this violence; it comes from her mother, who bullies her, and her husband, who beats her. Their brutal encounters are captured with the same tracking shots and whip-pans that director Craig Gillespie uses for the ice-skating showdowns. Perhaps he is making a point about the unity of violence – symbolic, psychological, bodily – that Harding experienced during her tragically short career. But it all gets lost in the mannered storytelling. Violence is supposed to be a theme of I, Tonya; by the time we reach the blood-soaked epilogue, it is little more than a style.

Black Panther

1. The economy of Wakanda – the fictional African country ruled by the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) – depends on a metal called vibranium. This material gives the population a high quality of life without the need for any democracy. As a shimmering megalopolis of skyscrapers and magnetic trains, Wakanda is supposed to exemplify the afrofuturist spirit: a science-fictional alternative to white supremacist modernity. In fact, it most closely resembles an oligarchical petro-state like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Politicking in Wakanda consists of bloody battles between tribal leaders to contest the throne. This is the means by which the film’s villain – Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) – briefly comes to rule. Killmonger overthrows the Black Panther to avenge his father, who was killed by an Wakandan emissary to prevent him using a smuggled vial of vibranium to foment a black revolution in the United States. It is not ‘Wakanda’s way’ to use its technology to act in solidarity with the global poor; the Black Panther is not the king of all oppressed black people – he is simply king of Wakanda. Like his slain father, Killmonger cannot sit idly by while black people outside Wakanda suffer. (He is also a misogynist and a mass-murderer who cut his teeth as a US soldier in Afghanistan.) If Killmonger’s father represented the politics of twentieth century secular liberation, the son represents its degradation into nihilistic, pseudo-jihadist violence. Emancipatory politics is nothing more than violence.

2. Although representation as an end-in-itself is limited, the euphoric rush of representation should not be dismissed. It can be cathartic and meaningful to see the white superhero template filled with black faces that are not tokens. Inversing notions of luxury and the primitive in order to skewer our colonial culture has clearly buoyed many viewers. And although the film arguably promotes the idea of black excellence over solidarity, it has filled working class people with a sense of self-worth, pride and love for their communities. Black Panther (2018) is a rare example of a film that’s been used as well as watched. In Brazil, it has fuelled the so-called rolezinho protests against social segregation, with black Brazilians organising a mass-viewing at a cinema in an upper-middle class shopping mall, defiantly occupying a space meant for the white elite. ‘A movie with 90 percent black actors fills me with pride,’ said a black resident of Rio de Janeiro. Star Lupita Nyong’o has used the press junkets to talk to the mass media about the historical and psychological consequences of colonialism.

3. What about the real Black Panthers, the communists who fed the poor and demanded an ‘end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black community’? The film’s obvious insult is the friendship between the King and a CIA agent. (The Panthers disintegrated in part because of constant surveillance from the CIA and FBI.) Former Panthers have focused on advocacy work: recently released Sekou Odingo is using screenings to educate moviegoers about black militants who still languish in US prisons. Back when the Panthers were a revolutionary force – acting quite unlike Wakanda and establishing material links with oppressed people across the Third World – they would watch and rewatch Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966). They treated the film like a instruction manual to accompany Mao and Che’s texts on guerilla warfare. So, what films can revolutionaries turn to in 2018? Definitely not the liberal humanitarianism of a Marvel superhero movie. Today’s militant needs a movie that speaks to an increasingly stratified world where everything is mediated. Maybe The Hunger Games Mockingjay (2014-15) is due a rewatch.

Lady Bird

The teenage rites of passage that Lady Bird (2018) chronicles are wholly unsurprising, but Greta Gerwig’s solo debut distinguishes itself with a strong sense of time, place and class.

The film is set – vividly – in 2002. During a post-coital argument, Lady Bird’s (Saorsie Ronan) pretentious lover (Timothée Chalamet) reminds her how many civilians have been killed in Iraq (so she gets some perspective on his appalling sexual conduct). In another scene, Lady Bird jokes about a dearth of applicants to New York colleges ‘because… you know… 9/11’. 

When a nun (our heroine attends a Catholic school because her brother saw someone stabbed at his comprehensive) comments that Lady Bird writes about her hometown Sacramento with loving insight, the student bats away the compliment: ‘Yeah I pay attention.’ ‘Have you ever thought they may be the same thing? Love and attention?’ If so, Gerwig clearly loves Sacramento too. She enriches her characters by showing, not just their houses, but their streets and neighbourhoods, coffee shops and malls. She chooses the city’s humble landmarks – shot as if they were Mount Rushmore – for the most emotionally pivotal scenes. When Lady Bird and her best friend reconcile after a spat, the backdrop is the city’s sparkling Tower Bridge at golden hour. 

Lady Bird asks her mother over voicemail whether she found driving for the first time in Sacramento emotional, and there’s a photo-montage of the city, including gas-pumps and Motel signs. Gerwig finds a way of expressing how a hometown is constantly reinvented in the imagination as it mixes with memories and relationships. Lady Bird’s resentment towards her mother and Sacramento is connected. There is the suggestion throughout that we only get a limited picture of the mother – the blinkered view of a teenage daughter. When Lady Bird displays sensitivity towards her hometown – its idiosyncrasies and beauty – we’re left thinking she might soon extend the same imaginative generosity to her mother.

But it’s not clear the mother deserves her generosity. She won’t allow her daughter to make mistakes or to be a child. In one scene, she weaponises her husband’s joblessness to win an argument about tidying the room. Lady Bird asks if she ever resented her own mother telling her off. Without turning back, the mother replies, drained of feeling, ‘My mother was an abusive alcoholic.’ But then we see those moments of selfless care. She delivers an altered dress to Lady Bird while she’s sleeping. And when the father suggests that her abusiveness lies in a frustrated desire to help Lady Bird, we truly see the mother – in all her desperate self-hatred – for the first time.

Mother is ashamed of her own lack of wealth, and the two bond over their aspirations for a big home (visiting palatial open houses is a favourite Sunday activity). At times the family’s class position seems overwrought, to the point where debt and unemployment are overshadowed by the family’s neurosis. But Gerwig shows a common American reality: not poverty, but the imminent, anxiety-inducing threat of poverty. Neither mother nor daughter are allowed a moment to forget their precariousness. They are in the bathroom discussing dad’s mental health. Despite revealing the grave fact of his depression, mother wants to fob Lady Bird off with some platitude about the fact success doesn’t make you happy. Lady Bird sees through it. ‘But he doesn’t have a job. And he’s depressed’. Those who leave the cinema with a sense of triumphant arrival in New York are forgetting Lady Bird’s future: her precarity will double as a student, and her relationship to Sacramento and her mother, far from resolved, promise a life of uncertain identities. 

Loveless

It’s becoming clear that Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Russia is a palatable vision for Western audiences. He confirms a suspicion that Western intellectual and political elites have about those mysterious lands: there is something intrinsic in the people – or in the environment – that corrupts. In all Zyyagintsev’s films, the permanence of nature offers a parallel for a country which, despite its tumultuous history, has something intransigent at its core. The rivers in The Return (2003) watch the brothers’ journey. Tree branches bookend proceedings in Elena (2011). In Leviathan (2014), a sheer cliff face is tracked slowly. All suggest immovability and fatalism. In his latest effort, Loveless (2018), we have deciduous trees in the opening shots. These woods are blighted – the inevitable location of missing child, Alyosha. We see one of them – naked and trembling – from below, when in an early scene, Alyosha throws a bit of tape into the tangles. We revisit this image at the close of the film. Nothing has changed; nothing can change. This is the same mindset that allows Western journalists to characterise Russia as a place of menace and authority. Contemporary Russia does not emerge out of a historical moment; it flows from an eternal spirit that bends towards the unbridled ‘father figure’. All this is ideology plain and simple, and it’s hokum.

Of course, Loveless is more subtle than its Western readers. Everyone knows that it’s about a missing boy. But don’t let that fool you. We’re a long way from Gone Girl (2014), Prisoners (2013) or Spoorloos (1988). The subject matter belies the tone and narrative of the film. There are no twists; the drama – what there is of it – is subdued; and the dominant affect is anomie, not suspense. A scene in which the father, Boris, listens to a news broadcast about the possibility of new legislation against ‘apocalyptic sentiments’ reminds us that we’re watching an emotional armageddon.

Boris traipses through an abandoned building. His son used the basement as a sanctuary from neglect and white-knuckled parental conflict. What is this huge structure? We’re given long-shots of Boris as he enters each room. The first has a giant trough in the centre. It could, once upon a time, have been a swimming pool. Are we in an old leisure centre? Upstairs there are rows of chairs, some uprooted and scattered randomly. Could this room have been a lecture theatre? Was this a school or university? Whatever it once was is irretrievable. Now the yarrow sprouts and copper greens.

If this ruin was a municipal building of some sort then the collective spirit that built it has been replaced by avarice and narcissism. The public spaces in Loveless speak to a stratified society: the gated community where Zhenya’s hate-filled Orthodox mother lives; Boris’ office, where his anonymity allows him to sneak in late; a restaurant – which we enter, enigmatically, from the point of view of a flirtatious customer – where a party of women toast to ‘love and selfies’; the upmarket beauty salon that Zhenya owns. And then there are the homes. The aspirational dwelling is a sleek bungalow, with geometric surfaces and minimal interior design. Hell is the apartment block. Surrounded by people but all alone. In an early scene, Alyosha looks out onto the city. The focus shifts from the buildings in the distance to the foregrounded rain. When the child goes missing the neighbours see nothing. The leader of the volunteers is surprised: ‘Really? Nothing?’ ‘Nothing.’ During the search, Boris investigates the stairwells. In a stark, beautiful shot, we see him leaning on a balcony halfway up the block, hundreds of house lights half-illuminating the rain.

The Shape Of Water

There are two sets of texture at play in The Shape of Water (2017): the heavy, solid, aluminium world of post-war modernity, of consumer goods and Technicolor cinema, and the aqueous, refractive fluidity of something else – an otherworldly society – which sloshes at the margins. Halfway through the film, these two worlds come together. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) rides the early morning bus to work and watches two droplets of rain on the shuddering windowpane; they dance along the surface of the glass, endowed with their own agency, and fuse into one another.

The two droplets literalize what happened the night before when Elisa, a mute and lonely cleaner, consummates her relationship with ‘The Asset’, a humanoid aquatic creature that she helped to escape from the secret government facility where she works. The Asset was kidnapped by the US in the Amazon (the indigenous people treated it as a God) and brought to Baltimore by the sadistic Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon). The Americans and Soviets are interested in its supernatural powers, which could have value in the Cold War arms race; a parallel plot follows an undercover Russian scientist working at the US facility, who turns against his Stalinist bosses, and helps Elisa smuggle the Asset out to freedom.

This might all sound a bit too schematic, but it is the kind of scheme that inspires generosity: The Shape is the story of a disabled cleaner, a dissident communist, and a gay man (Elisa’s neighbour) successfully conspiring to free a prisoner of US imperialism. It is precisely Elisa’s disability that gives her a sensitivity to the Asset’s latent humanity, and it is her class position that allows her to get away with the daring escape, unsuspected (‘Why am I interviewing the fucking help?’, the anguished colonel says when trying to find out where the Asset has gone). Elisa and the Asset’s inter-species sexual relationship is treated as an expressionistic, and comic, consequence of their solidarity.

After an ET-esque chase conclusion, the Asset transforms the scars on Elisa’s neck into gills and they live a life of love under the sea. In other words, rather than ‘curing’ her disability, the Asset conjures a world in which her social difference can be transcended; normality must shift to accommodate the marginalised, not the other way round. There is a not too subtle allegory for miscegenation here. But it also raises a narrative problem. Despite the fantastical mode, The Shape of Water is set in actually-existing 1960s Baltimore: there is explicit racism towards black characters and we see ‘race riots’ on the TV news. So, why resort to allegories when the real problem is there in front of you?

 

Phantom Thread

The breakfast table is a crucial site of struggle in Phantom Thread (2017). The seating is always the same: the celebrated tailor Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) sits at the head, his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville – perfection) to the right, and his lover/muse/assistant to the left. The first time we see this arrangement, the seated muse offers Reynolds a plate of Danish pastries. When he refuses – ‘Remember I told you…no more stodgy things’ – she berates him for failing to show her any affection. The first section of the film produces her younger successor – Alma (Vicky Krieps) – who sits in the same seat, looking up at Reynolds with yearning admiration. At this point, you may have a sense of déjà vu. The circular narrative, with a different woman being sacrificed periodically to the altar of a male genius, is reminiscent of mother! (2017). But director Paul Thomas Anderson does not veer off into pretentious chaos, instead drawing a more traditional arc, somewhere between a 1940s women’s picture and the romantic comedies of Powell and Pressburger.

Unlike Jennifer Lawrence’s helpless pinball in mother!, Alma is the director of her own story. Early on we are invited to see her as an ingenue, desperate for the hidden wisdom of the tailor. Her blushing waitress is quickly enamoured of Reynold’s style, confidence, and looks. But even here she displays hints of another character – a self-deprecating confidence, a sly declarativeness – that anticipates conflict. We have to endure Reynold’s examination-style flirtations as he measures her body for dresses, and then the actions of a typical abuser, as he opens up and let’s Alma see his vulnerability, before shutting her out completely. Reynolds is slow to change. But throughout the film, Alma subverts her position of naivety and innocence. In fact, what the narrative reveals is a fragile, emotionally-stunted man, and a woman who is sharp, wiley and willing to make great sacrifices to create meaning and happiness. This is the assertive cunning of the oppressed, forced to know their masters better than anyone else in order to survive.

But does Alma know Reynolds better than his lovely ‘so and so’, Cyril? A rivalry between the two women –  not a crude contest for Reynold’s attention; they are both their own people – disturbs the natural order in the House of Woodwock. Reynolds is also obsessed with his late mother (look there for the key to the film’s twist), to the extent that he has a lock of her hair sewed into the canvas of his jacket and sees her apparition in mushroom-induced hallucinations. As Alma explains in her knowing narration, he sporadically succumbs to bouts of bedridden self-pity. Alma, on the other hand, adapts to her position, taking on responsibilities while fighting to retain her individuality. He speaks in pernickety snipes and overblown platitudes. She is quietly profound, telling Cyril: ‘I need to learn how to love him my way.’ Alma plays all the (often contradictory) roles women have had over the ages, and she transcends them all.

Anderson’s mythological essays on the founding spirit of America – There Will be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012) – contain devastating indictments of the effect ideology has on personal relationships. Phantom Thread zooms in on the relationships in order to broaden the emotional scope. But the film is no less about power just because it lacks preachers and industrialists. However, the final note is different: it’s Anderson’s first hopeful film about power, and the hope is not that power will be voluntarily eschewed, but that it will be effectively resisted, and then sublimated into...something else. It’s a text on overcoming intransigence and creating new possibilities. A shared life is possible. Recognition is possible. Self-transformation is possible!

The Post

In Steven Spielberg’s The Post (2017), Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) – the publisher-baron of The Washington Post – defies the instincts of the male, conservative boardroom and leans in. At the climax, she allows Editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) to publish the Pentagon Papers, bypassing her legal counsel and the Nixon government’s ban on spreading this trove of confidential material that detailled the ‘truth’ behind the Vietnam War.

Hanks relishes the role of bleeding-heart, liberal crusader. ‘If you publish these documents then The Washington Post will cease to exist!’ his lawyers plead. ‘If the government can determine what we can or cannot publish then The Washington Post has already ceased to exist!’ he replies. When an intern asks if the task he has just been set – sneaking into The New York Times’ office to find out what they know – is legal, Hanks chimes, ‘What do you think it is we do here?’ ‘The Washington Post fearlessly pursues the truth!’, is left unsaid. The film is as self-satisfied as its characters. This is Spielberg on autopilot, cruising on the fumes of ideology.

But he is rarely a completely toothless film-maker. (Think back to the feminist-conceptual-art scene of discombobulating domestic appliances in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) for proof of a transgressive director.) And there is a moment in The Post when you think Spielberg has found his bite. Bradlee and Katharine tussle for editorial control over their newspaper; he wants to publish the leaked documents while she demurs. At one point he chastises her for dallying in social circles that put her too close to power; a subplot follows her friendship with Nixon’s Defence Secretary Robert McNamara. But she then strikes back, ‘And what about your friendship with JFK? ... I don’t think he would have kept you that close if you hadn’t pulled a few punches…’

So there we are: both the conservative publisher and liberal Editor-in-chief are so ensconced in the upper-class that neither is able to maintain the critical distance necessary for independent journalism. This window of light closes after a few minutes. Bradlee recounts a moving anecdote about meeting Jackie Kennedy in hospital, moments after ‘Jack’s’ assassination, her dress still matted in blood. Katharine quivers. The implication is that his friendship with the suave, handsome President (who, he fails to mention, first invaded Vietnam) was meaningful: not a function of power but a genuine relationship. How dare she imply that liberals and conservatives are two sides of the same coin!

Downsizing

As the endlessly quoted aphorism goes, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. It also easier, it appears, to imagine Matt Damon shrinking his body to five inches, joining a Lilliputian society administered by an American healthcare provider, and becoming politically radicalised by his experiences with the poor. Even in this farflung universe, the social relations remain the same.

This is what happens in Alexander Payne’s high-concept sci-fi Downsizing (2017). In the near future, Nordic scientists invent a technique for averting climate change disaster: a serum that shrinks the human body. If taken by enough people the tonic promises to dramatically reduce levels of consumption – a riff on the (increasingly popular) Malthusian myth that overpopulation is the cause of all social problems.

A growing proportion of working-class people start to opt for the irreversible shrinking procedure – not for environmental reasons but to alleviate financial woes. In the world of little people (a Truman Show-esque settlement called Leisureland) a single dollar can buy thousands of dollars’ worth of commodities; as long as value is pegged to the real world, a mansion and a diamond necklace cost only a few hundred dollars.  Advertisements for ‘going small’ are seductive, pitched somewhere between the predations of payday-loan companies and suburban white flight.

Damon plays Paul Safranek, a well-intentioned, put-upon husband (a typical Payne protagonist), who undergoes the procedure with his wife – only to wake up, miniaturised, and discover that she got cold feet and abandoned him on the operating table. This emasculating moment is literalised when he leaves Leisureland to sign a (giant) divorce contract with her normal-sized lawyer. To pay alimony he takes up a menial office job in the tiny world – this supposed utopia isn’t even liberated from work.

But life is worse for others. Paul discovers that Leisureland runs on the labour of miniature workers: (tiny) Asian and Hispanic women who live in slums clean the (tiny) mansions of Russian businessmen, who make their millions importing (tiny) Cuban cigars. The narrative is, therefore, anchored by a critique of techno-utopianism: there is no technical fix to human suffering; unless capitalist social relations are directly addressed, racialised and gendered exploitation will continue to reproduce itself.

This decent insight is soon lost. There are too many genres to juggle; tone and structure come falling down. The narrative bends over backwards to soothe Paul’s injured male pride: he is moved by the plight of a tiny disabled Vietnamese domestic worker and they embark (after sleeping together) on a life of charity. You will be watching the mawkish ending through squinted eyes. It is implied that there will be no revolution in Leisureland – and one is left wondering whether Payne only half understands the film he’s made, or whether he’s only made half a film.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

A few jokes from Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) are already infamous. Rookie cop Jason (Sam Rockwell) splits hairs over whether he’s a ‘person-of-colour torturer’ or a ‘nigger torturer’. Our heroine, Mildred (Frances McDormand), spars with her son who calls her a ‘cunt’. Barfly James (Peter Dinklage, forlorn but dignified) is demeaned by Mildred’s ex-husband, who repeatedly calls him a ‘fuckin midget’. What, or who, are we laughing at? Clearly the humour derives from a taboo about what can (and can’t) be said. So is the butt of the joke the squirming liberal who cares more about issues of semantics than real politics? But the libs aren’t squirming, or, if they are, they’re squirming with pleasure. Three Billboards has received glowing reviews in just about every liberal broadsheet. The snowflakes aren’t offended. In fact, they find McDonagh’s script fearless, caustic and refreshing. So perhaps Jason’s alt-right chauvinism is the object of derision. The tendency towards extreme provocation in pursuit of free speech is risible. But Jason gets the endearingly funny lines, a whole narrative arc and perfect redemption. Who’s left to laugh at? Only those who are silenced by the story: the invisible, tortured black person; the single mother; the disabled man.

Park this issue to one side. Maybe we’re not laughing at anyone, but rather the collision of concepts. What a daring, bombastic script! But here is the real problem. Not only do the gags operate on the level of language, the whole film does. There is no weight to the characters and actions or to the issues explored. They shimmer like pixels on a screen. Long before  community paragon Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, doing his best) has become a disembodied voice, reading a suicide note like it’s a bedtime story, his lines feel abstracted from the body that projects them.

The film is funny – not, it has to be said, as funny as In Bruges (2008, also McDonagh), or other recent black comedies like P’tit Quinquin (2014) or Four Lions (2010), but funny nonetheless. There are some arresting images. A long-shot of Mildred striding between flaming billboards transforms her into a heroic form: the fire is the same fire that licks the Klan cross and the cop car, and she becomes a revolutionary figure in its glow. Elsewhere, McDonagh proves himself to be a writer first, filmmaker a distant second. Any film whose heroine detests the police so much she petrol bombs a station must be commended. (Although it’s worth remembering that Three Billboard’s coalition against the state consists of a small business owner, an advertising agency and a renegade officer.)

The film’s most touted virtue is the characters – supposedly subtle, complex and surprising. Mildred is tough, plain-speaking but soft too: she comforts Willoughby, whispering ‘it’s okay baby’ after he coughs blood on her face, a scene which telegraphs its intentions so clearly it’s embarrassing. (We also know Mildred is tender because she flips a cockroach off its back and talks to wild deer.) Woody Harrelson is goodliness plain and simple – a superlative husband, father and public servant. But…he’s got cancer! Jason – dismissed by some reviewers as ‘the racist cop’ – is more interesting. He gets confused easily and constantly loses things; his desk is scattered with kids comics and figurines. He was held back at cop school, still lives at home with his mother and slavishly follows her commands. A case of arrested development? Yet he makes sophisticated linguistic gags and shows ingenuity gathering evidence. There’s also a manic purity to the moral crusade that he embarks on with Mildred. Rockwell plays him as a buffoon one moment and pensive, philosophical the next. All this suggests Jason is more than complex – he’s fantastical.

Good Time

Twilight (2008-12) fans already know what Robert Pattinson can do: distant, enigmatic, lascivious, treacherous, with a smile that pleads for one last favour. Cronenberg saw all this. Many more will too. Pattinson’s lucky to have found the Safdie Brothers at this juncture: their new film, Good Time (2017), is an exhilarating turn towards genre, comparable to Kelly Reichardt’s surprising contributions to the western and crime thriller. Genre has expanded their canvas – geographically and thematically, making space for disability, race, drugs, gender and poverty to exist, unobtrusively, alongside each other.

The TV is always on, or about to be switched on. Background noise. Something to avoid nothing. It’s a fact of life, but it also keep things moving. The brothers – Nik (Ben Safdie) and Connie (Pattinson) – break out of therapy, rob a bank, get in prison brawls, break out of hospital, break into a theme park. Whenever there’s rest, the TV is turned on and action ensues. We’re in the home of a family who’ve offered Connie refuge. He watches TV with the granddaughter – a reality show in which a police officer tackles a mentally ill woman, and she lands on a knife. We hear the policeman say, ‘There’s nothing we can do about that. Just keep it in there.’ Connie flicks over. ‘I don’t wanna hear how they’re gonna justify that.’ But on the next channel his own convict portrait stares out. Connie kisses the girl to distract her, and the plot moves forward. After an evening with another man who’s been dodging jail and hospital, Connie’s face stares out again, prompting the man to ask how long he’ll get inside. Conflict. Just when the pace slows and you’ve entered a safety, the action swerves in a new direction.

This constant jolting saves the film. About halfway through, the combination of recklessness and composure that Connie exhibits starts to grate. Why won’t he just sit tight and wait? But everything moves so fast, you can’t afford to be still, and we start to believe that this restlessness is just a consequence of the frenzied life of crime. The plot digressions show that, although Connie thinks he has control, he’s just responding to events. And the city is an ongoing event, with traffic and security guards, and a million moving parts. Connie is just one of them. The Safdies show this beautifully the few times they zoom out and take a long view of him driving along the freeway, or running – like a figure in GTA – through the streets away from cops.

Nik’s social worker announces his importance by appearing in the first and penultimate scenes of the film. We’re sympathetic towards him in the opening. He seems to be giving Nik an IQ test, while eliciting information about a crime he’s committed. What’s sure is that he believes Nik has diminished responsibility. When Connie steals him away, we agree with the therapist’s sentiment: ‘shame on you!’ But he’s there at the end too, once the suspense is over, introducing Nik to a play scheme. As they walk down the corridor, he soothes his patient: ‘your brother did the right thing. You’re in the right place, and he’s in the right place.’ The natural order is the wayward youth in prison and the special-needs boy with all the other special-needs people. For all his faults, this is the kind of thinking that Pattinson’s character is trying to escape. They dream of living in a cabin and being able ‘to do whatever they want’. Connie is reprehensible in many ways. He’s manipulative and callous – and the people he hurts are mostly women. Nevertheless Connie’s ultimate motive – autonomy for himself and his brother – remains clear and, while it doesn’t redeem him, it certainly humanises him.

Call Me By Your Name

Call Me by Your Name (2017) – the most recent film by Luca Guadagnino – is a gay romance set in the early years of the AIDs epidemic. Homophobia is almost completely absent. It’s set in Italy at a time of polarisation and political assassinations. This is acknowledged through caricaturish debate between an Italian couple, posters for the PSI and a glib comment about a bust of Mussolini. It’s about young people, at a time of shrinking opportunity and security. These young people are waited on by a biddable housemaid (she’s part of the family!).

One of the functions of the maid is to regulate passages between characters – literally opening and closing doors, allowing bodies to be seen and relationships to develop. She’s a really existing character, really interacting with the plot and themes, except in all the features that make a character human.

But there are proper humans elsewhere. The lovers, Elio and Oliver, are carefully drawn. Oliver is voracious and sensual. We know this because he eats a boiled egg in 30 seconds flat; he shuffles his feet with his eyes closed to The Psychedelic Furs; and, although he’s a great scholar, he prefers swimming and volleyball to reading. Elio is the arrogant youth, loved by his family and a holidaying French girl. Where Oliver is bestial, Elio is refined. He transcribes classical music, reads, speaks fluent Italian, and listens to stories in German. Guadagnino’s idealised world, where high culture is matched by high compassion, further abstracts his scenarios from reality. He thinks the sophistication adds texture to his picture; it adds nothing.

There are things that the film captures well: the provisional freedom and spontaneity of holidays; the arrogance of youth, when pleasure feels like an entitlement; and the ever-collapsing boundaries between play, competition and flirtation. It’s frequently beautiful, finding moments of intimacy that are often overlooked. And I have no desire for a cinema of – inevitably simplistic – materialism. For all its faults, Call Me By Your Name is better than I, Daniel Blake (2016). There’s room for stories of love, unfettered by the material. But emotional reality and material reality are imbricated, sliding across each other to create our worlds. Guadagnino has to accept that if his story fails to correspond to this mixing, it will also fail to resonate with those who know their emotional lives emerge out of, and merge with, a very different material reality to the rarefied ones of Oliver and Elio.

Detroit

In the middle of Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit (2017) is a horror film. Like the torture-games from the Saw franchise, this slice of terror takes place in a single, claustrophobic location: the Algiers Motel. Unlike Saw, what we see is, more or less, historically true. Two black musicians, two suburban white women, and their two black friends are brutalised by a gang of sadistic police officers throughout one night – 25 July 1967 – during the Detroit riots. The women are sexually harassed. One of the cops misunderstands a mock-execution tactic and kills someone for real. This begets more violence.

Our fear during this long, arduous section is structured by the architecture of the motel and the conventions of the home invasion thriller. There are exits through which a few lucky characters escape. There are walls that muffle screams. Our reactions – ‘Grab his gun! Jump out the window! Hide on the floor! Play dead!’ – ape our responses to standard genre fare. Bigelow performs the opposite trick to Get Out (2017), where the politics of race elevate the horror genre and vice versa: in Detroit, the horror elements distance us from the bigger questions raised by the Algiers atrocity – about the systems that enable racialised violence. Bigelow’s approach also absolves her of any duty towards historical specificity. In the late 1960s Detroit was alive with radical trade unionism, a nascent black liberation movement and, of course, mass-insurrection against the state. But when we are inside her Algiers Motel we could just as easily be inside the house from Night of the Living Dead (1968) or Panic Room (2002).

In a film with pretensions towards some socio-historical truth, this exploitative simplification is a fatal error. It makes the courtroom drama that comes next feel trivial. It makes the humanisation of the racist cop feel stupid. It makes the survivor’s redemptive foray into church choir music feel facile. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers praised Bigelow’s technique for ‘[smacking] us down in the middle of a brutal historical event so we can see it – and feel it – for ourselves’. This tells us who Travers and Bigelow quietly assume Detroit is for: those who don’t already ‘feel’ racism on a daily basis. It is as if the film is designed to have a measurable, salutary, pedagogical effect on white liberals. But racism is not a horror show for worthy spectators. And cinema should offer more than a ticket to a haunted house.