Typically, I spend the first six weeks or so of each new year playing catch-up with all the Oscar bait that was released around Christmas. But as it turns out this awards season didn’t produce as many true prestige pictures as expected, so starting next week we’ll be returning to new releases with a look at Steven Soderbergh’s acclaimed action flick “Haywire,” followed by a review of the Liam Neeson vs. wolves survival thriller “The Grey” (I’ll also briefly return to the 2011 awards contenders with a piece on “The Artist,” if it ever opens in the Lodi-Stockton area).
This week, though, we’re still squarely in Oscar mode with quick looks at two of 2011’s stronger efforts — one that is toiling in limited release but deserves to be seen by a wider audience, and one that has been on DVD/Blu-ray for a while but has been over-shadowed by other recent, more high-profile releases. Both are contenders for Academy Award nods in major categories, so keep an eye out for them when the nominations are announced Tuesday.
I have a taste for the dark and disturbing when it comes to movies, but every so often I encounter a film that tests my emotional endurance. One such film is “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which comes billed as a character-based drama but actually plays out more like a horror movie, starring Tilda Swinton as a mother trying to “move on” with life in the wake of a murder spree committed by her teenage son. Director/co-writer Lynne Ramsay (an art-house favorite who had not made a feature film since 2002’s “Morvern Callar”) pulls absolutely no punches in her depiction of this difficult subject matter, and the film is relentless in its single-minded goal of pulling the viewer down into the same deep, dark void inhabited by its heroine.
The film is essentially an examination of pain (focusing not on the processes of healing or the pursuit of closure or true catharsis, but rather the fruitless search for “meaning” in senseless human tragedy), and as such could have easily fallen into the usual trappings that often render such projects more self-important than socially relevant. But Ramsay strikes the perfect tone throughout the film, alternating between brief flashback scenes depicting the nightmarish relationship between mother and son (starting at birth), and “present day” sequences that show us the mother’s vain attempts to reclaim some sense of normalcy following the high school massacre for which her son was responsible. The movie never comes across as exploitative, nor does it fetishize human suffering; it is as restrained and artful as it is terrifying, and that’s a hard balance to maintain.
Without such a brilliant central performance, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” may have been a provocative but emotionally hollow treatise on parental responsibility, or a shocking yet ultimately nihilistic portrait of a demonic child. Swinton, however, is completely committed to the material, and successfully navigates a very tricky role. Tasked with making the viewer completely sympathize with a sometimes unsympathetic character who made her own share of wrong decisions in life, Swinton once again demonstrates why she is regarded as one of the most talented and consistent actresses working today. This is far and away the most impressive performance I saw from any actor in 2011 — male or female, lead or supporting — and Swinton should certainly be remembered in the best actress category when Oscar nods are announced, even if the film itself will be otherwise ignored.
I missed “Warrior” in theaters and quickly filed it in the back of my memory bank along with the hundreds if not thousands of other promising Hollywood genre flicks that I will probably get around to seeing sometime in the next 20 years. But my better half has recently developed a “thing” for star Tom Hardy and gave it an enthusiastic recommendation, citing it as one of the better “sports dramas” of recent years. Given that she is aware of my general opposition to the genre but thought it my kind of thing anyway, I decided to be a dutiful, trusting boyfriend and wedge it into my clustered viewing schedule. Apparently, I should listen to her more often.
“Warrior” is not just the most engaging sports drama of recent years, but indeed may be my all-time favorite entry in this always-rocky genre. The film is hardly subversive, and gleefully exploits the very same annoying genre conventions that make me so disinterested in this kind of movie in the first place: the underdog narrative, the inane sports-as-life metaphors, the troubled relationships mended by the catharsis of competition, all unified by that damned slowly swelling music. Yet in telling the story of two estranged brothers (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton) who face off in an international mixed martial arts competition, “Warrior” somehow executes these clichés to perfect effect.
The drama is (gasp!) actually compelling, thanks in no small part to hard-edged performances from the two leads (Hardy, at this point, deserves comparison to a young Robert De Niro) and likely supporting actor Oscar nominee Nick Nolte as a formerly abusive father trying to atone for his sins of the past. The fight sequences are invigorating, illustrating the brutality of the sport without getting needlessly explicit, and ensure that the movie works as a combat-oriented action film as well as a character study. And even though the story’s outcome is predictable, it’s delivered with such earnestness and conviction that one can’t help but be swept up in the grand drama of it all. It even made me stand up and cheer.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.