On today’s dissecting table, Evolution, Lucille Hadžihalilović’s long-awaited follow-up to Innocence, and Black Mass, Scott Cooper’s long-awaited follow-up to Out of the Furnace.
Evolution (d. Lucille Hadžihalilović scr. Lucille Hadžihalilović, Alanté Kavaïté)
Hadžihalilović ‘s only previous feature as director, 2004’s Innocence (a cryptic symbolist fable based on Frank Wedekind’s novella Mine-Haha or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls) opens with a pre-credits shot of a child-sized coffin apparently being transported somewhere. The opening credits (styled in the manner of early cinema, like something from Guy Maddin) are topped and tailed with imagery of water flowing over a weir in a country stream, first from within the water, then from above the surface. The first scene of the film shows a group of young girls, all dressed in some archaic kind of school uniform, opening the coffin to reveal another girl, younger than all of them, who they welcome into their highly ritualised and circumscribed world, ruled over by a mysterious clique of adult women. Evolution also starts under water, but in the sea, its crystalline images captured in HD video rather than the organic and scuffed film of Innocence (in contrast to the early cinema feel of Innocence’s opening these images are post-cinematic, like the Bluray dioramas used to sell flat screen televisions in department stores). Just as in the earlier film, the first human entrant into the scene is a child – this time a boy, swimming in the clear ocean water, who thinks he sees the body of a dead boy splayed among the coral, with a starfish either emerging from his belly, or burrowing into it. Spooked, he reports the find to his mother (one of a mysterious clique of women raising young boys on a remote island, according to a set of mysterious rituals).
All of the foregoing preamble because, after seeing Evolution a couple of days ago, and popping the DVD of Innocence in earlier today, just to check a couple of things (do you know I’d completely forgotten that Marion Cotillard was in it?), it seems clear to me that any attempt to get to grips with Evolution that doesn’t also include a reacquaintance with its older sister is likely to be incomplete. Particularly so when the newer film is, despite the clarity of its images, more obscure than the older one, and even more frustratingly cryptic. Many viewers will be moved to ask themselves, more than once, what on earth is going on here? What is that disgusting grey slop that the women are feeding their boys? Why are boys transferred from their spartan seaside homes to a dank and mysterious underground hospital, that plays like a horror movie parody of a maternity unit? And what, finally, is up with all that starfish imagery?
There may be answers here, and there is a plot (naturally, and as with Innocence, it’s about an adolescent’s desire for escape from the narrative prison they find themselves in), but none of that affects the oceanic emotional flow of Hadžihalilović ‘s images (captured in collaboration with DP Manu Dacosse, best known for Amer and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears), which range from the unsettling (the papulae of a starfish captured in extreme closeup, about to, what, penetrate? a boy’s navel – the person sitting behind me squeaked loudly in horror) to the inevitable 2001 homage – at the film’s most disturbing juncture, to the strangely banal (naked women writhing orgiastically in the moonlight? Why try to improve on the classics, I guess). You could try to analyse your way to dry land; best to just give yourself up to that sea. – Indy Datta
Black Mass (d. Scott Cooper scr. Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth)
Or as it will for ever be known in my house, Captain Jack Wants an Oscar. Here, Johnny Depp and a pair of “Ooh, scary” coloured contact lenses give it their best shot – under the auspices of Scott Cooper, who directed Jeff Bridges to a fistful of best actor awards in Crazy Heart – in the story of the rise and fall of the Boston gangster and FBI informant James “Whitey” Bulger. Sorry, that would be Baaaarrrrstan gangster because the accent work in this film is so ripe, it rendered fully a third of the dialogue indecipherable to me. Perhaps another third of the dialogue had me rolling my eyes as John Connolly, the federal agent and childhood friend of Bulger played by a beefy and hammy Joel Edgerton, realises he isn’t so much Bulger’s handler as his pet – and doesn’t seem to care.
We watch Bulger become an informant in order to get rid of his enemies, the Boston mob, and take over their territory. We watch him interacting with his family in scenes that have none of the power of the crime epics this film is so keen to ape. We are told in voiceover (parts of the story are told via police interviews with his former lieutenants that slide into flashbacks) that the deaths of two loved ones changed and unhinged Bulger, but there’s no evidence of that in Depp’s all-crazy-all-the-time performance. Later we watch the authorities flounder as any attempt to build a case against him is broken up by Connolly or – it is implied – Bulger’s politician brother, a bizarrely cast Benedict Cumberbatch (and not just because there are five years between the real Bulger brothers and 13 between him and Depp).
What we never see is anything we haven’t seen a hundred times before – and God knows I don’t need to watch another junkie prostitute get murdered (poor Juno Temple, again). But Cooper grinds this out without the verve and moral force of Scorsese or the depth of the great TV crime dramas of the past few years. Mostly he just leaves Depp to unleash his repertoire of tics and tricks in pursuit of Serious Acting accolades. Sad to relate, he may get them – but this slab of ham doesn’t deserve it. – Concetta Sidoti