The Birth of a Nation **½
Audaciously appropriating the title of the first blockbuster in Hollywood history a century later to turn its racial agenda upside down, director-writer-lead Nate Parker at last brings the story of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion to the screen in a potent if also somewhat pokey manner that will nonetheless hit home with many viewers. A labor of love pursued by Parker for seven years, the film vividly captures an assortment of slavery’s brutalities while also emphasizing the religious underpinnings of Turner’s justifications for his assaults on slaveholders. It’s a film very much in tune with the current state of heightened racial friction and one that generated a great deal of media attention and controversy — more for cultural and political, rather than artistic, reasons; creatively, it’s a far cry better than Stanley Kramer, but it’s no Son of Saul either.
Parker refused acting jobs for the time it took to get this project launched, itself a good story. But the real story is Turner’s, a film of which has cried out to be made for decades and once almost was, by Norman Jewison, as an adaptation of William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning but subsequently disparaged 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner.
Recognized as unusually bright at an early age, Nat Turner was taught to read and eventually groomed as a preacher for his fellow slaves in Southampton, Virginia. Even though he had to pick cotton, he didn’t have it as bad as many of his color did, but eventual exposure to the deepest horrors of the "peculiar institution" roused him to action, as did his unusual religious visions and revised interpretations of biblical passages.
In Parker’s script, the story for which he wrote with Jean McGianni Celestin, young Nat Turner (Parker) is largely shielded from the worst depredations by a master roughly his own age, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), who’s trying to keep his father’s plantation going through difficult financial times. Nat can even exercise a degree of influence over Samuel, as when he suggests that Samuel buy the attractive teenage slave Cherry (Aja Naomi King) so he, Nat, can marry her. Outsiders sometimes fault Samuel for his relatively light hand, and Nat helps protect his fellow slaves from the worst of the worst.
With careful but arguably undue deliberation, the film offers a succession of vivid (if just briefly gory) set-piece depictions of white-on-black brutality, beginning with the dental torture of a slave on a nearby plantation who’s gone on a hunger strike. Cherry is attacked for no reason and, for his part, Nat is struck for merely preaching to slaves whose owners are more sadistically inclined than his own.
When Nat is discovered to have baptized a white man, it’s simply too much for the local bigots, who have him whipped something fierce. Slowly but decisively, Nat’s personal scales of justice begin to tilt the other way; a man who once dueled another over conflicting interpretations in the Gospel, Nat now takes the edict "smite the oppressor" to heart, using it as grounds to mount a slave insurrection that he intends will spread and deliver his people from tyranny.
The screenplay builds up to this moment with care and even a degree of preciousness. On top of that, the direction has its moments of eloquence and a handful of memorable images, particularly one near the end, a backward tracking shot revealing numerous bodies hanging from trees in a glade. All the same, the deliberate and unvaried sense of pacing becomes monotonous, just as turbulent dramatic undercurrents and a sense of building narrative momentum are increasingly missed.
By the same token, the staging of Nat Turner’s climactic nocturnal raid on white households, during which between 55 and 65 people were killed, mostly with axes and knives, could have been made more sweeping and affecting. Partly, perhaps, it might have been a matter of budget and shooting time, but a master action director could have made this into an amazing sustained sequence that ideally would have swept the viewer up in the horror of it all while provoking profoundly complex reactions due to its underpinnings.
As it is, Parker conveys the basics of what happened but without the more profound sense of what this incident represented morally, politically and historically. He also severely telescopes Turner’s final weeks on Earth, a period that could have been developed into an exceedingly dramatic chapter of its own.
Still, the film offers up more than enough in terms of intelligence, insight, historical research and religious nuance to not at all be considered a missed opportunity. Far more of the essentials made it into the film than not; its makers’ dedication and minute attention are constantly felt, and the subject matter is still rare enough onscreen as to be welcome and needed, as it will be the next time and the time after that.
As he must, Parker dominates the proceedings as Turner in a carefully judged and non-showy performance. He well suggests the man’s early prudence and tact in judging what he can effect and get away with and what he can’t, and also illuminates the man’s emotional and pastoral concern for others. His transformation into a man of action is perhaps less convincingly dramatized, even if his motives are clear.
Beginning with Hammer as a man who here and there suggests that, under different circumstances, he might not necessarily have felt compelled to enforce the prejudices and practices he inherited, the supporting cast is solid, albeit without the array of stellar supporting turns that graced 12 Years a Slave.
Cinematographer Elliot Davis’ shooting on Georgia locations is astutely judged and particularly notable in the night shooting. Henry Jackman’s score is unusually varied and draws upon multiple musical traditions and references to fine effect.
Deepwater Horizon **½
At the start, Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon feels like a courtroom drama. With the screen still black, we hear a clip from the testimony of a witness, promising "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." A likely story. The rest of the movie is no more concerned with litigation than it is with ecological fallout, unless you count a cameo appearance by a distressed pelican. Instead, what Berg has done — as he did in The Kingdom (2007), which sprang from attacks on Western compounds in Saudi Arabia, and Lone Survivor (2013), based on a Special Forces operation in Afghanistan — is to take a complex and unwieldy episode and strip it down to its essential moving parts. So efficient has he become at this that the Bergian brand can now be relied on to make doomed or devastated events resound like triumphs. He is the ideal filmmaker, you could argue, for a nation that continues to smart from the wounds of unpopular wars.
None of this can be accomplished without a hero, preferably one who verges on the herculean. Mark Wahlberg, who played the title character in Lone Survivor, returns in the more peaceable part of Mike Williams, the chief electronics technician on the rig. We see him, before his departure for a three-week shift, hanging out with his wife (Kate Hudson) and their daughter, Sydney (Stella Allen), who helpfully declaims a school essay on what her father does for a living. By rights, these scenes should be as corny as hell, and yet they do the trick, as do Mike’s exchanges, later on, with his co-worker Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) and his boss, Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), because the actors feel not just grounded but bedded down in their roles. Russell, in particular, seems so weathered and toughened by time as to be indestructible. When the explosion hits, Mr. Jimmy, as the crew calls him, is in the shower; though naked and half-blinded by the blast, he plucks a jagged shard from his foot, tugs on his overalls and boots, and gets to work.
The screenwriters, Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, have designed the dialogue both to instruct and to overwhelm. Technical terms abound, lending a rich and glutinous texture to the talk. Mud means not mud but drilling fluid. We hear of kill lines, blowout preventers, negative pressure tests, and something called the bladder effect, which I would rather not know about. The highlight comes when the phrase "confidence in the integrity of our cement job" issues from the lips of John Malkovich. He plays a senior honcho from BP on the rig. Malkovich is the only actor, I would say, who juts out from the surface of the film — as riveting as ever, yet savoring his villainy just a little too much.
True to the ever-disturbing laws of disaster movies, we wait hungrily for the Deepwater Horizon to blow. When that happens, the conflagration is so extreme that one can’t quite tell whether Berg is still pursuing a logical narrative or switching to barely controlled chaos. This is where Wahlberg comes into his own. We follow Mike’s exploits as if we were clinging to a guardrail, watching in awe as he rescues Mr. Jimmy, strives to engage the emergency generator, and climbs to a perilous height, the better to leap for his life, with the ocean blazing below. In short, Peter Berg has done it again. You finish this film shaken with excitement, but with a touch of shame, too, at being so easily thrilled.
The Accountant **
The next scene takes us to the present day, where a strip mall accountant named Christian Wolff (the allusion is to the German philosopher and mathematician, not the contemporary avant-garde musician and composer, and you can only imagine how let down I am by that), an affectless fellow played by Ben Affleck (who, frankly, is trying a little too hard to be flat — the strain shows), dazzles a couple of his clients with tax code wizardry anyone who’s ever filed under "self-employed" will recognize as pretty basic. And then we are whisked to the Department of The Treasury, where avuncular bigwig Ray (J.K. Simmons) delivers some exposition on a mystery man — the fellow played by Affleck, as we already know. "He’s their accountant, an accountant, ‘the’ accountant," Simmons says, sounding like he’s setting up an episode of The Blacklist. The junior officer he’s telling all this to, played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson, is intrigued. And soon she’s annoyed, as Simmons dredges some stuff up from her past to effectively blackmail her into tracking "the accountant" down for him.
There’s quite a bit of stuff going on here, and for a good while The Accountant percolates on its multiplicity of plot threads even as it keeps adding to them. As it happens, the "accountant" that the Treasury agents are looking for is up to quite a bit more than providing tax relief for rural dwellers. He uncooks the books for a slew of deadly bad guys. Deadly bad guys who are, an observant viewer will note, subsequently busted by the Treasury Department. Despite his proximity to some of the most dangerous criminals in the known universe, this man of dozens of aliases stays alive. How? Part of the answer is provided by the recurring flashbacks, in which Wolff’s father (Robert C. Treveiler) provides young Christian with his more militaristic cure, which later manifests itself in sharpshooting and martial arts skills. I admit that it is a novel idea to take a Rain Man-type character and also make him into a Lethal Killing Machine, but it’s also in kind of bad taste, something the movie tries to ameliorate by depicting autism with sympathy and some progressive accuracy. Despite the fact that he has oodles of cash and precious art at his disposal, the accountant’s life is a welter of pain, much of it in the form of self-punishment. The viewer is left to wonder why he plays the dangerous games he does.
At that point, the nice British-accented woman who seems to be the only person he can truly trust, and with whom he communicates only by phone, tells him that it’s time for him to take on a "legit" big client, and plops him in the lap of a high-tech prosthetic firm headed by John Lithgow. Turns out that Dana, one of that firm’s accountants, played by Anna Kendrick — doing, as she did in Up in the Air, fine work in a Non-Romantic-Romantic-Interest role — has discovered a discrepancy. Christian uncooks it, as they say … and then very nasty assassins are dispatched to kill both Christian and Dana.
Here the action heats up. Christian kills a guy who looks a bit like Vice mascot and rapper Action Bronson, in a scene that is far and away my favorite in the movie. A very effective hitman/financial-malfeasance-avenging-angel played by Jon Bernthal shows up. The plot, as they say, thickens.
And then it goes south. It goes very far south, with two plot reveals that are among the most ludicrous that I’ve experienced in quite some time. The worse of the two twists is made genuinely hilarious by the cutaways to Lithgow watching things unfold on his home security cam monitors and looking in disbelief — echoing the likely expressions of the viewer. In any event, it certainly DOES succeed in being more "exciting," say, than 1981's Rollover. But excitement isn’t always positive.
Other New Releases This Week:
Under the Shadow ***½ A rare genre film of emotional and political complexity, one that’s well acted and directed, even if the psychological horror is front and center.
Closet Monster ***½ Canadian writer-director Stephen Dunn’s first feature treads no new ground in basic outline. But the risk taking confidence with which he weaves his sardonic magical-realist elements, not to mention his unpredictable yet assure approaches to style and tone, makes this an auspicious debut.
Kevin Hart: What Now? **½ At times throughout this concert film, Hart’s brash honesty about himself can feel liberating.
Max Steel ½* May promise a change of pace from all the Marvel and DC adaptations, but it’s subpar to both those shared universes on every level, telling an origin story that brings little new to the table and a cast that deserves far better.
No stars Abysmal