Ready or Not Rated: R Runtime: 1 hour 35 minutes Directors: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet Starring: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brian, Henry Czerny, and Andie MacDowell
Easily the purest, most urgent, and most stupidly one-sided antagonisms in “civilized” history has been the timeless struggle between rich and poor. The latter expending their lives desperately trying to crawl their way out the abyss of impoverished suffering whilst the former gleefully accumulate more and more atop the hellish pit all while making sure to kick as many strained fingers off the ledge as they can. But every once and a while a poor sap manages to make it to the top; they struck gold with an idea, won the lottery, or became a celebrity success story (Oprah or Beyonce). Or they married into a wealthy family.
Ready or Not sees such outcome as Grace (Samara Weaving), who’s said to be an orphan or a former foster kid, joins the wealthy Le Domas family by marriage to their estranged son Alex (Mark O’Brian). Like any despicably rich brood, the Le Domas enforce their own form of gatekeeping in accepting new members to the family. Each prospective addition to the successful gaming dynasty must draw a card from a mysterious wooden box. Printed on the card is a game, picked at random, that the new in-law must play to officially consummate the marriage. Most of the game options are harmless (checkers, some other arbitrary board game), but one proves fatal: hide-or-seek, where the newly wed husband or wife is hunted by the rest of the family armed with primitive-but-deadly weapons. The hider’s fate if found is clearly not good.
Ready or Not recalls semi-recent genre takes like Adam Wingard’s You’re Next (2011) and Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), and though those films definitely play better in their respective moments, directors Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillet do a fine job synthesizing the two essences for a shrewd dialectic on class contempt and justified wrath. I’m not as over-the-moon for the snarky August release as its critical champions, but I can appreciate the aesthetic effort along with the refreshingly low-profile ensemble (not knocking the clearly talented cast) that really sell the figurative horror story.
Samara Weaving is an instant-icon final girl and our surrogate in battle against the monolith elite, whom are un-surprisingly incompetent at containing her. The impotent world we presently live in is not the product of competent leadership. Competent leaders don’t justify the future for present exploitation. Capitalism dictates those who own the most capital, the most wealth must wield the most power, otherwise the whole wonky system would cease to exist, which is mighty convenient for those with lots of money, but maybe not. The existential fatalism of capitalism predicates an insulated power class, safe from the violent repercussions of the violence they unleash n-fold. The thing is though, that violence they’ve insulated themselves from has real consequences no amount of money can save them from, and it’ll be their own damn fault.
Apocalypse Now: Final Cut (2019) Runtime: 3 hours 3 minutes Rating: R Director: Francis Ford Coppola Starring: Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Laurence Fishburne, and Marlon Brando
This August saw a momentary theatrical-IMAX re-release of Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum opus Apocalypse Now, this time with a new cut from the legendary director aptly subtitled the Final Cut. Coming in at 183 minutes (roughly 10 minutes shorter than Redux and 30 minutes longer than the original edit), the Final Cut offers an renewed opportunity to delve back into the Heart of Darkness with Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) as he tracks down the rogue Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in wartime Vietnam. The cultural context of the Vietnam War as represented in the film, itself a translation of the Belgian-colonial context of Joseph Conrad’s source novella, has always been emblematic of an inherent irrationality of war and ideological terror. The state of the world has not improved since 1979; the latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report expects global food shortages and mass poverty by 2030, necessitating a complete and total diversion from current social, political, and economic function. Neoliberalism, and its various past incarnations, has effectively dropped us in a dialectic hell from which there is no comfortable escape – a tantamount hell to the one Captain Willard finds himself over the course of his surreal mission.
The plot goes, Captain Benjamin L. Willard is tasked by ranked U.S. Army officials with tracking down and assassinating the brilliant Colonel William E. Kurtz, a decorated Special Forces operative driven to insanity by the horrors witnessed in war, who’s since formed his own rogue outfit out of Cambodia. The idea of someone as tactically intelligent and capable as Kurtz operating out in the field, outside of America’s interests deeply disturbs the U.S. Army, the precise reason why being as obvious as it is illusive. Robert Duvall’s iconic Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (“Charlie don’t surf!”) is a clear indicator the U.S. government has zero qualms with sadistic warfare from its personnel, as long as agents extend the symbolic olive branch postmortem. Kurtz’s offense cuts deeper than cruelty, it violates the number one rule of the reality construction project that is the bureaucratic institution: confronting the Lie at its heart.
If Apocalypse Now is about anything, it’s the moral contradiction serving as the basis, the pretense for countless acts of cruelty inflicted in the contrived arena of war. Willard and company stop a Vietnamese supply boat to search for contraband presumed to aid “Charlie.” He advises they dismiss the small boat, letting it pass without incident, but the crew insists. As expected, the routine procedure goes horribly awry when Mr. “Clean” (Laurence Fishburne), with the itchy trigger finger, unloads the boat-mounted machine gun into the unarmed transport. Post-slaughter, they find a smuggled puppy hidden away in a basket – clearly not worth killing anyone over. One of the wounded, a Vietnamese woman who was trying to protect said puppy, doesn’t die right off. The boat captain, Chief Phillips (Albert Hall) demands they bring her abroad to take her back to base for medical assistance. Willard’s seen enough; he walks over to the two soldiers attempting to carry her aboard and mercy shoots her point blank, to everyone else’s shock. Martin Sheen’s brooding voice over monologues his growing resentment for such “lies.” Later on when we finally meet Colonel Kurtz, he recalls a similar realization precipitating his own existential unraveling: the two really aren’t so different.
We’ve learned nothing from the great mistake that was the Vietnam War – America can hardly even acknowledge it lost the war. The cultural legacy of the war, Reaganomics of the 80s onward, along with entrenched nationalistic antagonism with the Soviet Union up till the 90s, has only amplified the moral insanity of our modern world. Just as Willard “sees no method at all” to Kurtz’s nightmarish haven of death, there’s nothing rational about the way Western-capitalist idealism has rendered us impotent in preventing our own destruction by our own hand, but that’s expected in any toy democracy where the real power is safeguarded by a paywall rather than its people. What’s left is fertile ground for “horror and moral terror.” The epidemic of white supremacist terrorism, openly encouraged by our own government officials, conveniently disavowed after the fact is nothing if not horror and moral terror explicitly defining our dour epoch.
In the film’s final sequence, Captain Willard **spoilers** strikes down Kurtz in dramatic fashion, yet he faces on final challenge after he completes his mission. Kurtz’s followers express no hard feelings for their leader’s execution. They bow to Willard as he descends the haunted temple lair, a clear gesture of willing servitude and a chance for Willard to succeed Kurtz as agent of “horror and moral terror.” The fact that anyone can rationally come to the existential conclusions Kurtz does from a dialectic logic of domination and cruelty, is a clear sign of cultural ruin. To see this manufactured reality for what it is, brutal workings and all, and no reasonable power to change it, is true doom. The apocalypse is here, not in the wake of raining fire, but an accepted propensity for blind insanity masquerading as righteous participation.
Midsommar Rated: R Runtime: 2 hours 20 minutes Director: Ari Aster Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, and Will Poulter
In the Swedish commune that is the predominate setting of Ari Aster’s Hereditary follow-up, the community elders, at the ripe age of 72, willingly give their lives to the nature divine; in their archaic life economy, the pain and suffering of old age is circumvented through the ritual act of suicide, so as to not taint or corrupt the soul with needless torment. To the typical subject of modern society, which tends to value life only as far as its potential to produce material goods, such a macabre cultural mode is surely to inspire terror rather than celebration – exactly what happens when Dani and company witness the graphic practice in the film. But is the ancestral symbolization of suicide really that taboo held up to the mainstream attitude towards the subject? Midsommar is in major ways a spiritual sequel to Hereditary in its visceral dive into the psychological terror that comes with the existential challenge of living under the oppression of modernity’s uniquely alienating effects. **mild spoilers ahead**
Dani, our main protagonist and a magnificent, authentic performance from Florence Pugh, is the prime subject of the film, around whom the effects of social reality has rendered a guilt and anxiety-ridden mess. We meet Dani whilst leaving a nervous voicemail to her parents on the account of a trouble message she received from her mentally ill sister. It’s clear Dani has some issues of her own – she’s admittedly leaned on her emotionally inept boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) far more than she’d like as she confides to another friend in another early phone call. Dani’s lurking fears comes to pass with the news that her mom, dad, and sister have all been killed in an apparent murder-suicide, of her sister’s doing. Dani needs Christian more than ever, but he’s not equipped to give what she needs from him. And why would he? He came up in the same twisted framework she did. He’s pressured by friends (William Jackson Harper and Will Poulter) to break-up with her, but when the news comes and along with it Dani’s grief-stricken comatose, he can’t help but be there for her, even if he doesn’t know how. Dani and Christian’s relationship, fueled by a mutual desperation for connection and stability, is surely to resonate at least partially to any modern romance, and is requisite to the visceral horror at the film’s center. Codependency is a perfectly organic development under the psychosocial ineptitude of neoliberal modernity, incubating a permanent-lasting, dull drain on lived, irreversible time. When that codependent insecurity is touched by the collective tabooism of the Hårga Swedish commune, the subsequent culture clash yields horrifying conclusions.
Dani, Christian and company spend some time with the Swedish natives for sometime before any cause for concern arises; specifically the grotesque ritual suicide midway in. The film makes a point to contextualize the disturbing display of violence within the Hårga tradition, which doesn’t view the act of suicide/euthanasia in the derogatory light the neoliberal dreamwork does. In fact, the Hårga community isn’t even really an oppressive hierarchy at all from the perspective of its active members. I mean sure, they casually indulge in ultra-violence against the unlucky sacrifice victim, but everyone in the commune share a spiritually fulfilling livelihood where their material needs are sustainably met: food, shelter, emotional support, and a tangible, egalitarian purpose that gives a respectable meaning to everyone’s life. Who is the modern subject to judge them when our dominate social mode is infinitely pervasive, relentless in its ends, no matter the psychological cost to its people? The theme of suicide weighs heavy on the film, especially considering the explicitly graphic nature of its depiction in the film’s more harrowing sequences. The difference between the suicide at the beginning of the film at the one in the middle is clear in spiritual intent, but what’s mutually true of the respective acts is salvation from future misery understood to be ultimately unnecessary. Death is a cruel mercy from the harsh existential truth of suffering, but we don’t really have just cause to judge either.
Midsommar succeeds as dramatic commentary as well as compelling aesthetic exercise. It’s unconventional use of brightness, white, and daylight is almost disorienting, sneaking up on you like Dani and her group’s inability to differentiate the days apart in the region’s extended daylight hours. It’s very cool how the scenes in America are shrouded in darkness and shadows, which we tend to strictly associate with the vulnerability at the core of fear, juxtapose with the festive, flowery whiteness, perpetual illumination, like the communal openness, where that vulnerability is inverted in a scary way; where that fear comes not from being unable to see, but from being too seen, because where you come from, letting people see how you feel in its full extent is dangerous and you’ll be punished for it.
Like with Hereditary, Ari Aster once again uproots a horror inherent to our way of life in the 21st century: the unsustainable psychological deficiency of our system of relationships. Modernity has fundamentally done away with public accessibility to the mental facilities necessary to enjoy the life you have, with the irreversible time you are forced to forfeit. Some cope by finding meaning in their work, like their pHd thesis, or they play it safe through life, never committing to themselves in a state of permanent anxiety. Others cope by taking their own lives, and while not ideal by any means, the very logic of modern culture does not cultivate such sufficient valuation of lived time. The Hårga traditions are nowhere near as depraved as the ones Dani, her boyfriend, and us the audience, have been forced to live in. That’s scary.
Us Rated: R Runtime: 1 hour 56 minutes Director: Jordan Peele Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, and Elizabeth Moss
As complicated as the modern world presently is, it might behoove us, as a species on the verge of cataclysm, to step back and figure out where along the way we went wrong. From our ascension from the brutish state of nature to our adoption of the Social Contract, socialization and cooperation, eventually to systemic industrialization and exploitation, humankind has perpetually struggled with the notion of a “greater good” for collective prosperity: what it entails, who it applies to, who it doesn’t, and how far those with power will go to attain it. The most heinous acts committed through history – global and American slavery, the numerous attempted and successful genocides committed in the name of nationalism/religion, the catastrophic systemic violence perpetrated in service of capital – were all allowed to transpire due to that sole belief in the “greater good,” the ends of which always justify the means, or so our ruling class insists. Jordan Peele’s Us presents us a parallel world, similar to ours in all ways except one and simulates the inevitable retaliation that necessarily comes with the evils committed for the greater good, whether that’s for ourselves, our family, or our nation.
Us follows Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), a young, middle class black woman, with perfectly nuclear family and all, on vacation to their Santa Cruz beach house, where in her adolescence, she faced a disturbing encounter with a sinister doppelgänger. Though she’s managed to live a “good” life with charismatic husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and two children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), Adelaide can’t help but dread the looming reunion with her mysterious adversary. They embark on their first beach excursion, where youngest child Jason ventures away from the family, triggering an already anxious Adelaide into a prompt panic. They find Jason quick enough and while he isn’t physically hurt on his person, it’s clear he’s shook. Later that night, Adelaide’s paranoid suspicion comes to pass, as the doppelgänger she met those all those years prior, along with copies of each of her family, arrives to terrorize the household and claim dominance where it really counts. But before the proverbial show can get going, Red, the name Adelaide’s copy calls herself, takes a moment to provide dramatic subtext to the imminent violence like any good villain. It’s through Red’s brief exposition that we begin to comprehend the scope of her motive.
Once again, funny-man-turned-thespian Jordan Peele masterfully weaponizes thematic misdirection to actualize another circle of social hell, different from that on display in his Academy Award-winning Get Out (2017). Contrary to its ghoulish marketing, the film reveals Red and her army of doppelgängers to have a much more familiar origin than the supernatural implications of their existence suggest. And its in this realization that the film’s point emerges: Red and her fellow “tethered” do not purposely attack to torment our protagonists. No, they are here to seize the lives they’ve been forced to approximate and take their rightful place in a civilized world. We don’t learn the details of where they come from or how, all we know is that they were originally conceived to covertly control the actions of their fulfilled opposites above ground, but when the American authority deemed them no longer necessary they were discarded, left to survive in the underbelly of the country; that is until one of them had an idea to stop the suffering themselves. Why in their right mind should they continue to endure endless torment in service of a neglectful populace when they are relentlessly denied even basic life pleasures? The violence perpetrated isn’t so much malicious as it is retaliatory; very much in the same vein as Oliver Stone’s 1994 cautionary genre flick Natural Born Killers, another fascinating film I’ve discussed at length in an earlier piece, which you can find here.
I don’t feel a need to dive into plot spoilers for Us, but audiences can be assured that every revelation, big and small, only helps solidify Peele’s greater allegory; that is, hierarchical societies, like the Capitalist America we live in, have an implicit expiration date that is pragmatically out of the hands of the ruling class. Under such conditions, there will always be a “tethered” population robbed of every outlet but one, and as long as we refuse to confront ourselves and the evil we force on others to secure our comforts, the outcome will always be the same.
Downrange Rated: NR Runtime: 1 hour 29 minutes Director: Ryûhei Kitamura Starring: Kelly Connaire, Stephanie Pearson, Rod Hernandez, Anthony Kirlew, and Alexa Yeames
Browsing Shudder the other week, I decided to take a gamble on one of their proclaimed “exclusive” features called Downrange. A cool blind of isolation and slasher horror, Downrange follows a troop of friends, presumably college students, as they befall a flat tire in the middle of a desolate stretch of road before quickly discovering their car trouble is no random happening. A homicidal sniper has taken up his nest with the intent to kill anyone unlucky enough to enter his kill zone, which they have just done. With death coming at any moment, the heroes must struggle to escape their inescapable predicament. You can probably surmise from the conventional set-up that Downrange is going to ultimately be your standard killer-kills-young-adults-in-mostly-brutal-fashion flick and that’s exactly what it is, but not without a few twists up it’s sleeve. Although, the impact of those subversions may be an overstatement in light of the film’s more unfavorable elements.
Firstly on what works really well; the premise, or the situation, the film stages is legitimately scary in precisely on how pragmatic its execution is, especially with random gun violence becoming an accepted norm in America. Some may even recall the 1966 University of Texas tower shooting where a former marine took up a vantage point with long-range weapons to shoot and kill 16 people. On that detail, I have to give props to director Ryûhei Kitamura for running with it; it’s quite effective. Another thing that surprised me was the gore. The gore effects are very well done and are really what sell the film’s explicit slasher-ness if you will. Those not familiar with extreme gore like convincing head cave-ins and gaping body wounds, this one could sneak up on you. I’ve never been a huge fan of slashers: watching cruelty for cruelty’s sake isn’t intrinsically fun, and while I agree there’s something morbidly exhilarating or curious about going to that dark place with content – “disturbing” film enthusiasts know what I mean – there’s a time and a place for everything. With Downrange though, the bouts ultra violence don’t so much go down easier, but are subtextually justified by genre intent.
The film tries to toss in a couple twists on the conventional slasher, like swapping out the knife/stabbing kill weapon for a firearm or subverting the final-girl-who-grew-up-a-survivalist-saves-the-day cliche. I suppose the ending is also supposed to be a surprise turn of events, but the full potential of that creative effort is undercut by the needlessly elongated pacing and unconvincing character acting. This is definitely one of those horror films where you want the main characters to die because they’re so annoying to watch. I mean, for what the film is, the casting is fine enough, but it’s apparent the actors needed more direction from Kitamura than what they got.
Downrange isn’t the smoothest survival slasher, but it hits the mark with it’s terrifyingly relevant premise and impressively gory kills anchored by its single location narrative. As horror goes, you could do a lot worse.