Barry Keoghan

American Animals

10/09/18

True life heist movies.

You wait for ages and then two come along at the same time. The ‘other’ film, is of course, the uninspiring plod-fest that is King of Thieves, but Bart Layton’s American Animals is an altogether more exciting proposition. This is a heist movie like no other – indeed, I’ll go so far as to say that it knocks the genre upside down and inside out, creating something quite unique in the process. It’s neither a documentary nor a fictionalised account of actual events, but an inspired amalgam of the two. It’s also one of the best films I’ve seen this year. The news that Layton is now a favourite to step into the vacant slot at the helm of the next Bond movie seems somehow… odd. Of course, I understand the appeal of taking on such a potentially career-boosting project but, after this beauty, it would feel decidedly like a step down.

It’s 2003 and a bunch of disaffected students at the oddly named Transylvania University in Kentucky decide to try and steal some books from their campus library. These are no ordinary books, but priceless (and huge) first edition bird studies by Audubon, worth millions of dollars and guarded only by one elderly female librarian. Spencer Rhinehard (Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) first formulate the idea and then, as it gradually moves towards becoming a reality, they recruit casual acquaintances Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Renner) to help them bring it to fruition. At first, it’s like a playful fantasy, with the ringleaders watching famous heist movies for inspiration, experimenting with disguises and meticulously drawing up their plans. But as the actual event looms ever closer, things begin to get more serious.

The events of American Animals are skilfully cut with interviews with the real life robbers and their parents, many of whom are clearly still in shock about what happened. The brilliance of Layton’s film is the way he keeps switching the point of view, sometimes featuring the real perpetrators in the same frame as the actors who play them, until we’re no longer sure whose narrative we are actually following and which version of the story we should believe. It’s an audacious approach that really pays off.

When we come to the events of the crime itself, the proceedings turn very dark indeed, emphasising the fact that slick, cool heists really are a product of fiction. This robbery is frantic and sweaty and punctuated with expletives – and, of course, unlike the fantasy, there really is a victim here, librarian Betty Jean Gooch (played by Ann Dowd, but also seen as herself, reflecting on her ill-treatment). The reality is, of course, that absolutely nothing goes to plan, the perpetrators are way out of their depth and, once the robbery is over, they are plunged into a world of dread as they await their inevitable fate.

Layton has created something very special here, something that’s worlds away from the workmanlike tropes of the James Bond franchise. I hope he continues to pursue his own projects, because films of this quality don’t come along very often.

In short, don’t miss this; it really is a stunner.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Advertisements

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

04/11/17

Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous film, The Lobster is a real divider of opinion. Many people love this dark dystopian comedy, while others just can’t get their heads around the surreal craziness of the plot. I suspect the same fate awaits The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which, while it heads into much darker territory than its predecessor, still offers us a story that has very little to do with any kind of perceived reality. And yet, for all that, this bizarre fable about the nature of sacrifice is a powerfully compelling tale that exerts a real grip.

Heart surgeon Steven Murphy (a hirsute Colin Farrell) enjoys a successful career. Married to ophthalmologist, Anna (Nicole Kidman), and the father of Kim (Raffey Cassiday) and Bob (Sunny Suljic), he seems content with his life but talks only in the most banal terms about the dullest subjects – an early discussion with an anaesthesiologist about a watch that Steven is thinking about buying sets the tone.  

We soon learn, however, that Steven has a secret. He is meeting regularly with teenager, Martin (Barry Keoghan) and, inevitably, we suspect that there’s something sinister going on. But the film is full of misconceptions. Martin, it turns out, is the son of a man who died on Steven’s operating table and the surgeon is simply trying to be nice to him, possibly because he feels a sense of guilt about what happened. Steven, we discover, is fond of a drink and may not have been entirely sober when he went into the operating theatre. As the film develops, Martin begins to inveigle his way more and more into the Murphy household and even insists that Steven should come to his house and meet his mother (an unsettling cameo from Alicia Silverstone), who Martin claims ‘has feelings’ for Steven. But then Martin says something that will change Steven’s life forever. It’s in the nature of a prediction – and means the surgeon having to make the most difficult decision of his life…

This is a fascinating tale, expertly told. Though it has no rational explanation, there’s a mounting sense of dread throughout and the story (co-written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou) seems to delight in exploding received wisdoms about how people will act under certain conditions. A mother will always put her children first, right? Siblings will always look out for each other, yes? Well, in this film’s worldview, nothing can be taken for granted.

If I’m honest, the movie overstays its welcome somewhat. With twenty minutes cut from the running time, this would have been stronger, but nevertheless there’s still plenty here to enjoy, not least Keoghan’s wonderfully dead-eyed performance as the teenage boy who comes to exercise complete control over the Murphys. Oh, that title, by the way, refers to the myth of Iphigenia, so those of you who have studied the classics might have some intimation about where the story is headed.

As I said at the beginning, some people will inevitably hate this film. For me, though not perfect, it’s even stronger than The Lobster, and I for one will be fascinated to see where this exciting and highly original film-maker goes next.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Dunkirk

22/07/17

Christopher Nolan must be one of the most eclectic directors currently working. From The Dark Knight to Inception – from The Prestige to Interstellar, he seems to favour no particular genre, preferring to go wherever his fancy takes him. But I would never have predicted he’d direct a classic war movie like Dunkirk… but then, of course, this coming from the same man who made Memento means that it’s actually nothing like Leslie Norman’s 1958 film of the same name. This version employs experimental time frames to tell three interlinking stories. Powered along by Hans Zimmer’s urgent soundtrack and decidedly spare in its use of dialogue, the film grips like a vice from the opening shot to the closing frame.

The first strand concerns a young soldier, appropriately enough named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who is desperately making his way to Dunkirk beach in the hope of finding a boat to take him to safety. Along the way he meets up with the strangely taciturn Gibson (Damien Bonnard) and with Alex (Harry Styles – relax, it turns out he can act). The three men brave the dangers of ‘The Mole,’the perilous wooden jetty that leads out into deeper water where the larger ships can dock, but finding a safe berth is not easy and they are forced to seek alternative means of escape. The soldiers’ story plays out over one week.

Next up, we encounter Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), a quietly spoken boat-owner who answers the desperate call for help and sets off for Dunkirk from his home port in Devon, with his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan), a young lad desperate to prove himself to his parents. On the way they pick up ‘the shivering soldier’ (Cillian Murphy), a man so traumatised by his recent experiences that he can barely speak and who is clearly in no great hurry to return to France. This story is enacted over the course of one day.

And finally, in the deadly skies above Dunkirk, we meet Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), two spitfire pilots charged with the thankless task of taking on the might of the Luftwaffe, buying time for the fleeing army to make its escape. In what at first appears to be a perverse move, Nolan keeps Hardy’s distinctive features mostly hidden behind goggles and an oxygen mask – but then you realise that he’s doing it for a reason – to emphasise the fact that the individual pilots who took part in this conflict remain largely unknown. Their tale, dictated by the amount of fuel that a Spitfire can carry, takes only an hour.

But of course, the three strands are interwoven like an expertly braided length of rope and it’s to Nolan’s credit that the ensuing events never become confusing, even when one particular character appears to be in two places almost simultaneously. What this film does splendidly is pull you into the heart of the hurricane and hold you there in almost unbearable tension.

This is after all not a film about bloodshed – in fact we see very little of that onscreen. It’s more about the brutal realities of survival, the mental toll on the participants and the quiet heroism of those who participate in the carnage. It’s the true life story of a military miracle, pulled off against all the odds. It may not be Nolan’s finest achievement – I’d hand that accolade to The Prestige – but it’s nonetheless a superbly affecting film that justifies all the rave reviews it’s been getting.

Where will Nolan go next, I wonder? Well, I suppose he’s yet to make a teen romance. But I won’t hold my breath.

5 stars

Philip Caveney