Movies 2011: American Gothic

It was a bad year for America at the movies. Of course, that’s rarely not the case in these days of CGI disaster porn and 3D monstrosity. Still, the threats facing the nation in 2011 movies were exceptional.

Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion sent a plague across the land, with only Matt Damon’s plucky determination and Laurence Fishburne’s cool composure standing between the easily panicked populace and both total decimation and a skeevy Jude Law. The dull-eyed ambition of James Franco doomed humanity in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. An alien armada in Battle: Los Angeles blew up a good part of the Southland, either a natural-resources grab or just for kicks. And Transformers: Dark of the Moon made Chicago feel special, finally noticed by Hollywood long enough for Michael Bay to annihilate it.

There was little sting in all the mayhem, however. Soderbergh’s vision of a world-spanning pandemic was scientifically rigorous and hardly played for cheap thrills. But his failure (once again) to grant his characters emotional lives made the experience a remote one, seen through a glass blurrily. For all the collapsing buildings and tumbling bodies envisioned elsewhere, audiences had very little sense of the human toll being exacted on screen. Super 8 picked off supporting players and banged up its curiously idyllic town with little regard for the human toll. Even in a comparatively nonviolent spectacle like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the only gripping connection was found not in the doctor’s effort to save his father, but in his exchanges with the chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis), whose eyes were increasingly wounded and knowing.

As such moments intimate, the truly affecting destruction on movie screens in 2011 appeared on a smaller, though infinitely more palpable, scale. While bigger films offered epic bombast and slung their whiz-bang Götterdämmerungs about like so many fireworks, more precisely targeted dramas and documentaries drilled down into the gothic turmoil of modern America.

Among these, consider The Tree of Life. No one would call it a small film: iit has movie stars, a visual spectacle beyond compare, and grand themes enunciated with all the subtlety of Moses descending from the mountaintop. But while Terrence Malick is creating symphonic cinema, he’s also attuned to the minor movements. The romping children who gambol through the idealized dusky streets of the film’s small Texas town are symbols of some prelapsarian glory, to be sure, but they are also victims, cringing from the roaring furies of their perfectionist father.

Played with a coiled anger by Brad Pitt, that father embodies disappointment, seeing imperfections in whatever he looks at. One of his boys carries that disappointment into an adult life that seems as outwardly successful as his father’s, even as he is filled with listlessness, confusion, and anger. The sins of the father aren’t so much visited upon the son as they are echoed over years, and all the mother (Jessica Chastain) can do is lament the wreckage.

Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter shows another small town, a more modern and prosaic one (after all, it is Ohio). There is yet another mother, also played by Chastain (more earthly bound than in Malick’s wistful vision), tied by marriage to a storm-filled man. Curtis (Michael Shannon, in one of those titanic performances that leaves you in awe at what the right actor can do at the right moment), is a construction worker whose routine life is being disrupted by visions of the end times. One minute he’s at the job site or just standing in the backyard, and the next, it’s raining Biblical torrents and black birds are flocking.

Curtis knows it’s not real and yet the premonitions are as real as the breakfast his wife makes him in the morning or the sweet kisses he gives his daughter. Whether the visions are caused by some inner crisis or a biochemical storm wrought by the same genes that sent his mother into managed care years before, the effect is the same. His chaotic moods and exploding paranoias tear the family from its previously rock-solid foundations.

The resulting confusion is made all the more disconcerting by Nichols’ powerful sense of place, a local realism that feels as grounded as Malick’s was operatic. Artists go mad with visions, not a muddy-booted construction worker so embarrassed to admit his problem that he quietly checks out books on mental illness from the library before seeking counsel. Nichols’s occasional hint that all of his protagonist’s visions might not all be just visions elevates the family’s disruption into something larger and more sinister.

Existing on the same cusp between horror show and unreliable narrative trickery is Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, in which a family is rent asunder and put back together in a wholly obscene way. Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) dashes off at the film’s start from the cozy farmhouse where she has been living as part of a cult. Moving in with her sister Lucy (Sarah Poulson), a bundle of yuppie nerves trying to vacation in her country home with her British husband (Hugh Dancy), Martha washes through the day in a dreamy stupor. She revisits in episodic memories her time with the cult, which is complete with its own family-like hierarchy of pseudo-siblings and an abusive father figure (John Hawkes), whose approval she craves.

Martha’s time with that family is certainly horrific in a creeping and lo-fi manner, but it also doesn’t seem like out and out captivity. Durkin leaves details lingering on the foggy edge of certainty, among them the answer to exactly how much Martha needed to be brainwashed by the cult. Her acquiescence to all their demands and her inability (or unwillingness) to shake their pedagogical cants even after escaping, leaves open the possibility that she was looking for them as much as they for her. The combat between the sisters reveals their own longstanding and mutual resentments, and it’s not long before Martha’s isolated residence in Lucy’s stark luxury dwelling (a contrast to the friendliness of the cult compound) starts seeming like more the imprisonment.

The violations of the home and body that erupt into Durkin’s eerie and somnolent dreamscapes are a salient focus of Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life. A documentary that carries more emotional firepower than almost any fiction film released in 2011, this American gothic is set in a small town in Texas where a pointless home invasion and multiple murders left behind many ruined lives. After the 2001 killings, two young men were sent to death row. Herzog interviews them, the victims’ families, and some of the people who have to work on the assembly line that is capital punishment.

Among all these interviews, Herzog locates a thesis concerning the essential wrongness of everything that he is seeing: the killings that set everything off and the killing that is to follow. But it’s his interview subjects that make the film the affecting portrait that it is. They’re relentlessly polite and eager to help, whether it’s the deferential “yessir”s of one convict’s father (a lifelong criminal himself, and deathly ashamed of it) or the matter-of-fact way an ex-prison guard describes how he couldn’t manage to work on death row any longer. No one seems to have a whole life, no family is saved. The devastation is everyday.

There is a moment in almost every blockbuster apocalypse when the hero and audience behold a great threat, but it’s usually undercut in some fashion. Either it’s merely prelude to the special effects bonanza to follow or it’s a teaser for the sequel that sits half-planned and waiting for word that enough people have paid to see the first installment.

But in these smaller portraits of destruction, those moments promise nothing, whether Curtis is overwhelmed by his dark clouds or Martha by her circling memories of the ghost family that may be coming for her, or a murder victim’s relative by the coming execution that must relieve the pain. They all know a storm is coming… but it’s not going to sell tickets.