Given that it is the holiday season and that post-production is just now concluding on four productions simultaneously there just has not been very much time to dedicate to writing. However, I have recently seen two films, one new and one slightly older, that I would like to discuss to some measure. That said, I believe I should note that neither film is meant to really be discussed in conjunction with the other. The grouping of these two films is circumstantial, though if one sheds some light onto the other through these brief critical appraisals so much the better.
Spotlight (2015), despite all of the hype, is not the first film to deal with the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and the institution that protects them, nor is it the first film to dramatize the actual events surrounding the story as it broke at the Boston Globe. In anticipation of Spotlight I watched Dan Curtis’ (best known as the man behind the show Dark Shadows) film Our Fathers (2005), a Showtime original movie. Each film represents a different approach to the same story and coincidentally both are rather effective ensemble pieces. The primary difference is actually quite simple, and that is that Our Fathers focuses on characters within the church and Spotlight restricts itself exclusively to the perspective of the journalists who first broke the story. Considering how that sounds, one may be surprised that each film remains relatively objective in its treatment of characters (each film does, in one manner or another, condemn the Catholic Church). McCarthy’s Spotlight redeems characters complacent to the cover-ups just as it also allows protagonist Michael Keaton to be subject to very human errors and mis-judgements. Likewise, Curtis’ Our Fathers goes to great lengths to humanize Cardinal Law’s (Christopher Plummer) crisis of faith as the cover-ups become public. This is even more astounding to a degree due to the fact that Our Fathers, unlike Spotlight, was aired only four years after the Boston Globe exposed the Catholic Church.
The traits that make Spotlight at worst an “interesting” viewing experience are clearly the product of Tom McCarthy’s talents. Tom McCarthy who has written (with Josh Singer) and directed Spotlight seems to have been groomed to tackle this material. His background as an actor on The Wire and Law & Order has certainly colored his approach to recreating the story, bringing recognizable narrative arcs and character types of the “true crime” genre into the film. McCarthy’s recent work as a director on a series of character driven independent films is also certainly at work in Spotlight, particularly when one considers the strong performances of the film’s ensemble cast.
This leads us to what is the most impressive aspect of Spotlight; its lack of a proper villain. Yes, the Catholic Church and its lawyers represent the obstacle to the journalists’ justice, yet is left, as it would be to the journalists’ perspective, a vast and faceless entity. Faceless in that the multitude responsible for the cover-ups of child molestation by priests is too great to be summed up by one character (a component that is not shared by Our Fathers). This gives Spotlight a kind of ambiguity that is effective in persuading viewers that are of the thinking that these cover-ups are the result of a few “bad apples”. The audience must make the journey, with the journalists, to uncover the facts of the case and thus come to a moral conclusion. In most films an alternative perspective to that of the protagonists would be manifest in a single character representative of this alternate perspective who would be given scenes that demonstrate the immorality of this conflicting position. Singer and McCarthy’s script has none of this, opting instead to repackage the prestigious “message film” as an effective and engaging piece of persuasion.
Lumber barons have, believe it or not, been a staple in American cinema for a long time. I am prompted to say this because I have heard a number of people react to the premise of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence starring in a lumber drama as if it were a quaint novelty. Granted, it is a sub-genre that is not often employed in this day and age, with the exception of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), so is the genre of the oil baron drama. Yet each sub-genre shares a singular conceptual thread; the disillusion of morality in the face of capitalist gain. This is the very crux of Written On The Wind (dir. Douglas Sirk, 1956), Giant (dir. George Stevens, 1956), The Strange Woman (dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, 1946) and Come & Get It (dirs. Howard Hawks & William Wyler, 1936).
But unlike the dramas of oil barons and their industry, the lumber baron drama has a visual allegiance to an entirely unrelated film genre, the western. Like westerns, these films about logging in the wilderness are so rooted in the visual textures of nature that they adorn, intentionally or not, the romanticism of the western genre, the idealistic certainty of the Westward expansion. With Serena (2014) director Susanne Bier wisely embraces this element of the genre, utilizing a number of cutaways and establishing shots of the North Carolina mountain ranges to give an expressionistic reflection of the protagonists’ psychological and emotional states at any given time. The manner in which these nature shots linger owe a debt to films by Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, though Bier appears to have some difficulty wedding this aesthetic with the performances of her lead actors.
Cooper and Lawrence’s portrayals of the Pembertons are melodramatic to the point of camp, a fact that isn’t at all odd when one considers the supernatural (second sight) and all together gothic elements of the narrative. This union of camp with the gothic can also be seen in Ulmer’s lumber baron drama The Strange Woman, supporting the relative success this combination of filmic elements is capable of. However the style in which Bier captures her characters, an intensely realist approach to the visual language of these scenes, does much to undermine both the camp and the gothic elements entreanched in the films material. Ulmer, representing the opposition to social realism and therefore Bier’s aesthetic, preferred The Strange Woman to be theatrical in its visual language, capturing the performances of Heddy Lamarr and George Sanders through a gloss of obvious artifice indebted to the theories of Bertolt Brecht. Bier, on the other hand, is rooted in the contemporary trends of realism best exemplified in the films of Steve McQueen and Andrea Arnold.