When I mention small films, it may appear at first that I’m being disparaging. On the contrary, I think that some of the most talented directors truly show their skill with a tiny budget and a priority on storytelling. If you strip the spectacle out of many big-budget titles, you get a narrative that can’t stand on its own. A skilled director knows the value in telling a compelling story, and some of the most interesting pieces of film arise from film makers that don’t let a lack of funds get in the way of delivering the story they want to tell. By their very nature, the movies I’m presenting today aren’t as populist or as easily accessible as some I’ve recommended in the past, but I hope everyone finds at least one of these small films intriguing.
Locke is a strange film for which to write a recommendation, because I feel like you have to start by addressing the ludicrous blurbs plastered all over the film’s cover that really do it a disservice. There is a lot to admire about Locke, but at some point it seems the marketing team wanted it to stand out on the store shelves as a car-chase thriller and not the composed, single-setting drama it is. Locke is the story of one man who, upon a night drive from Birmingham to London, must navigate a myriad of issues through a series of phone calls, all of which are of considerable importance to his career, family, and personal life. And then? Well, no, that’s the movie. At a brisk 85 minutes however, Tom Hardy is able to draw you into the world of Ivan Locke with a considerable amount of gravitas and charm, due in no small part to the lilting timbre of the Welsh accent he’s affected for this role.
This is a one man show, and while you hear the voices of the supporting cast over the phone, the movie relies on its audience to picture what precisely is going on at the other end of the line. Practically, this is a way to tell a story on a shoestring budget, but it also serves the delivery of the narrative and the way it communicates the helplessness of Locke’s predicament. He is level-headed and cool as the proverbial cucumber, but no amount of his measured words are able to smooth over every issue that has come to pass as his car hurtles forward into the night, toward an uncertain future. We get to see a satisfying evolution of a character from one who is under the illusion that, despite his own failings, he is capable of orchestrating everything to his benefit to ultimately accepting that his own actions have put him at the mercy of forces outside of his control, a very humanizing moment. While some of Hardy’s performance seems melodramatic to a fault (talking to his estranged father while looking in the empty rear-view mirror evokes less desirable strains of Clint Eastwood), he nonetheless has the gravitas to pull you into a story with no action whatsoever. Locke is the film equivalent of the short story you run across that doesn’t overstay its welcome, but sticks with you due to its uniqueness.
Obvious Child (2014)
You may have encountered Jenny Slate on television before. From her scene-stealing roles on Parks and Rec and The Kroll Show to a brief one-season stint on Saturday Night Live, Slate has already proven that she knows comedic timing. Obvious Child goes a step further by giving Slate more room to breathe, a role that is not relegated to a one-note gimmick, and it allows her to play a more nuanced character. That character is Donna Stern, a struggling stand-up comedian and Brooklyn bookseller who seems to spend just as much time drinking as bearing her grievances on stage. The film begins with her boyfriend hurriedly breaking up with her, and it is a good device to see how this character copes with life as her world unravels a bit. The montage of her leaving drunken voice mails is particularly on point. She is vulgar, but her acerbic wit is charming. You might not agree with her personal choices, but Slate does a fantastic job of making Donna a sympathetic example of the late-20s millennial who means well but still hasn’t hit her stride. Two contrasting dinner scenes are well done, one with her genial and supportive father (Richard Kind) and one with her aloof and judgmental mother (Polly Draper); the latter of these two relationships will see some interesting development.
What truly makes this movie stand apart from the standard rom-com fare is the subject matter. Donna soon meets a charming new guy, becomes pregnant, and decides that she is in no way fit to bring the pregnancy to term. Obviously a movie that involves the decision to terminate a pregnancy will be divisive, and for anyone who disagrees too strongly with that choice to relate to the character, I can’t blame you for giving this one a pass. I did appreciate the way this film is, as A.A. Dowd called it, “casually but fundamentally progressive.” This is not a film masquerading as a pro-choice argument, but rather a film that happens to be about a pro-choice character. It is the type of life choice that is made by so many women, but is still taboo to address without all of the religious and political baggage that surrounds it (and I’m not going to pretend it’s any different in this case). This movie presents a singular case of that life choice without all the preamble, and in doing so, presents a good-natured and humanizing look into an issue that many women feel cannot be discussed openly. Obvious Child doesn’t take too many chances with its narrative, and follows many conventions of the genre, but it really is Slate’s performance here that elevates it to something more, subject matter notwithstanding. By now you know if this movie is your cup of tea or not, but I think anyone up for a different perspective may be pleasantly surprised.
Blue Ruin (2013)
Blue Ruin is a textbook example of how you can take a small story and an even smaller budget and turn it into something just as nail-biting as any big budget thriller. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: revenge stories, as a genre, can be incredibly manipulative as a short hand to make the audience have a visceral reaction simply because of our inherent desire to see justice meted out to the unjust. Because of this, we usually get a simple structure where a meek or unassuming person is treated so unjustly and savagely early on that we accept what lengths they have to go to in order to exact that justice. In some ways, Blue Ruin follows suit during the film’s set up. It is hard to imagine a more sympathetic character than Dwight Evans. He is a man completely broken by an event in the past, an event which we soon learn involved the slaying of his parents. Where Blue Ruin diverges is how realistically and brutally it portrays the path that Dwight finds himself on, and how stoically it hints at no happy endings for anyone involved. This is not the revenge tale where the perpetrators are undone by their own actions — they are hunted.
There are certainly some similarities between Blue Ruin and the latter day films of Nicolas Winding Refn, particularly Drive and Only God Forgives. The violence is sudden, intense, and terribly graphic. The protagonists are introverts, unassuming men who have been forced by circumstances around them to take an uncharacteristically violent path that they feel, however misguidedly, is the correct approach. Whereas Refn’s characters turn from introverted loner into cold, precise killing machines, Macon Blair’s character is a bumbling mess. He convincingly plays a man who, driven by hatred for those who destroyed his family, is determined to kill, but has no knowledge of how to handle a gun, let alone a knife, without injuring himself. This quality makes it easier to relate to the character of Dwight on some level, but it also makes his fall from grace more frightening. Dwight does his damnedest to spare anyone who doesn’t have blood on their hands, but even he comes to see that the logical and savage conclusion of events that he is hurtling towards may do nothing to rectify past events, but rather to wipe the slate clean. This film is a slow burn, but with gorgeous and bleak cinematography that lends to a style rife with visual storytelling (director Jeremy Saulnier has three times more credits as a cinematographer than a director); it is not one to miss.
Since 2002’s Donnie Darko, Jake Gyllenhaal has consistently chosen interesting, brooding roles that have made him a leading man to keep an eye on, even if it hasn’t always thrust him into the public spotlight. Enemy once again sees him paired with Canadian director Denis Villeneuve whom he worked with previously on 2013’s Prisoners. Here Gyllenhaal takes center stage playing not one, but two characters whose lives are thrown into existential turmoil when they become aware of each other. Despite living two very different lives, the men appear to be doppelgangers, complete doubles of each other. Adam Bell is a history professor whose life has fallen into drudgery until, while watching a film that is recommended to him, he sees the face of Daniel Saint Claire. After learning the actor is a local talent (real name Anthony), Adam reaches out to him and what follows is an eerie unraveling of personality that flits somewhere between mystery and psychosis.
While it’s respectable to go into any film without any priming, I feel comfortable shedding a bit of light on how to approach Enemy for those who are interested. Enemy lacks a satisfying conclusion when put to logical scrutiny, but it excels as a character study. Like many works before that have featured doppelgangers, Enemy uses the action of confronting oneself as a way to bring self-examination into startling clarity. Enemy encourages its audience to notice things beyond its two characters’ verisimilitude and uses it as a device to draw attention to the differences between them; what they value in life and how they treat those around them. It can be frustrating because Villeneuve never directly hands the audience a cypher to help decode what is going on, and the final, shocking image isn’t so much a revelation as it is an invitation to watch the film again while considering different aspects. You will only get as much out of this film as you’re willing to put into it, and even then, I can’t promise that you will come out satisfied. For those up to the challenge, I think the eerie, almost Kafkaesque mood Villeneuve creates is chilling and enjoyable enough to give it a try.
This batch of movies isn’t full of your typical crowd-pleasers, so I’d love to hear some other opinions. Make sure to drop us a comment below, and please share with your friends if you enjoyed reading this or any of the content on As You Like It.