David Lynch first made a name for himself on the midnight movie circuit with 1977’s surrealist nightmare Eraserhead, which he wrote and directed while studying at the American Film Institute (AFI). The filmmaker then chose 1980’s The Elephant Man as the follow-up to his first feature-length film. This, however, wasn’t his original intention.
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Cinema is not interested in perfect love stories. Cinema is interested in the wreckage, in the torment, in the heartbreak. Whether it’s delivered via illness, accident, infidelity or mere circumstance, cinema thrives in the tragic wreckage of a failed relationship.
From Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945), through Ryan O’Neal and Ali Macgraw in Love Story (Arthur Hiller, 1970), right up to Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016), time and time again audiences have been rapt by stories of imperfect romances, of loves and, ultimately, losses.
In the final reckoning, people are never that creative. That’s true even when they think they’re changing history. The explorer who goes to the ends of the earth is usually after fame, money, or both. The investor will ignore every warning sign about a too-good-to-be-true opportunity until it’s too late and he’s lost everything. The genius inventor announcing that he’s creating an epochal advancement in technology will turn out to have some fairly mundane reasons for doing so.
The cartel wars’ corrosive corruption and psychotic butchery that have been progressively pulverizing Mexican society for over a decade have just now begun registering as more than a blip on the American cultural consciousness. One would think that such horror-film savagery and rock-and-roll street combat happening right next door, with a constantly mutating cast of heroes who turn out to be villains and villains who turn out to be monsters, would have grabbed more attention sooner. But, then, it was only after Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper reimagined another murky conflict into a reassuring and essentially false good-guy crusader narrative that the public turned out in real numbers for an Iraq War film.
Now there is Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, set in a U.S.-Mexico border zone awash in drug money, paranoia, and double-digit body counts. Emily Blunt (painfully miscast) plays Kate, an FBI agent who during a seemingly routine raid in an Arizona suburb stumbles into a cartel kill-house where the walls are filled with dozens of plastic-wrapped corpses, like some macabre art exhibit. Pulling that string gets her yanked into a larger cross-agency task force swaddled in official hush-hush.
Wes Anderson isn’t our greatest living filmmaker; his style is too narrowly defined for such a grand title. We tend to think of our greatest directors as both having a signature style but also being flexible enough to tackle many styles: Howard Hawks could move from urbane comedies to Westerns and epics, Martin Scorsese from urban grit to musicals and children’s’ fantasias, and so on. By contrast Anderson has one style, and each of his films simply refine it. All those twee little trinkets and fussy outfits could drive you mad, were one to watch too many in a row. But as perfectly Andersonian a spectacle as The Grand Budapest Hotel is, it also expands his reach in surprising ways. Being one of the year’s most unique spectacles, it’s also the first Anderson film made up of tragedy as much as it is comedy.