Last night, Stateless co-creators Cate Blanchett, Tony Ayres and Elise McCredie, as well as some of the cast, took the mic at the Q&A following the Berlinale world premiere of the six-part series that airs on the ABC from Sunday.
Mark Ruffalo plays a corporate defense lawyer (Rob Bilott) here, in other words the precise opposite of the sort of person who would normally go in to bat for the little guy’ against a huge environmentally vandalistic company. Yet that is precisely what happens in this true story.
The tale of horrifying conduct, rampant dishonesty and the long struggle to expose them begins in Parkersburg West Virginia – Bilott’s home town – in 1975, and the rather labyrinthine ‘plot’ unfolds over a subsequent period of decades. Basically, it’s all about the scandalous behaviour of the Dupont chemical company, involving massive-scale dumping of landfill containing sky-high levels of the man-made chemicals used to make Teflon. And the nastiness doesn’t stop there.
Bilott is first alerted that something is amiss by some understandably furious and distressed Parkersburg residents who eventually contact him at his workplace in Cincinnati. Their animals are getting sick and dying prematurely, and we soon discover that this is the thin end of a wedge leading to some truly ghastly consequences, both human and ecological. Bilott is initially reluctant to get involved but, of course, he does… It should all be gripping but somehow isn’t particularly so for quite a while, though the level of tension does eventually ratchet up. Ruffalo’s performance is fine, and Tim Robbins is very good as his boss, Tom Terp.
Dark Waters is likeable not only for what it includes but for what it excludes: excessive swelling strings, histrionic speeches and ‘redemptive’ messages. This leaves it a bit workmanlike and plodding, and feeling somewhat overlong. But those are all lesser evils.
Crematoriums are inherently creepy. It doesn’t get much more morbid than a joint that literally exists to burn corpses down to ash, and yet there are relatively few genre films that have capitalised on this. Aiyai: Wrathful Soul, the debut feature from director Ilanthirayan Alan Arumugam, seeks to address this omission to mixed results.
Aiyai tells the tale of Kiran (Kabir Singh), an Indian student living in Australia. After losing his previous job in a kitchen in the opening minutes, Kiran takes a gig at a creepy crematorium, staffed solely, it seems, by weirdos. However, it soon becomes clear that there’s more than just eerie Aussies to be concerned about and Kiran begins to experience shenanigans of a supernatural nature, including, but not limited to, seemingly possessed ash, weird visitations, furniture that moves by itself and eventual spiritual takeover. It’s a lot, and one certainly can’t fault the look and ambition of the film, which boasts surprisingly slick visuals and impressive production values.
On the downside, the script is a bit of a mess, playing fast and loose with horror cliches and never quite settling into a groove. It’s fitfully entertaining, and a couple of sequences really look the business, but the rules and character motivations are frequently frustratingly opaque. Performances, too, are a bit rough around the edges, with Kabir Singh coming off a little too stiff to be an effective leading man. Tahlia Jade Holt fares a little better as girlfriend Sara, although her continued resistance to seeking help for her red-eyed, gurning, blood covered bae becomes a tad inexplicable as the film wears on.
Aiyai: Wrathful Soul is a gorgeous-looking film in search of a better script. It certainly has some effective moments, and some very silly ones, but doesn’t quite hang together. Still, fans of low budget Aussie horror will probably find something to love in this awkward, occasionally endearing, tale of ashy revenge from beyond the grave.
How do you make the Invisible Man scary in 2020? It’s a tough proposition, as is the case with most of the classic Universal monsters. Sure, the idea of a bloke sneaking around unseen probably scared the pantaloons off audiences in 1933, but it’s a bit more of an ask in an era of identity theft, rising fascism and the planet being on fire. If you’re talented Aussie writer/director, Leigh Whannell, you take the story in a different direction and change its point of view, making it more personal and much, much scarier.
TheInvisibleMan (2020) is really all about Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), who in the film’s tense opening finally escapes from her abusive, domineering boyfriend, and brilliant scientist, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Cecilia tries to piece together the shattered fragments of her life with sister, Alice (Harriet Dyer) and friend James (Aldis Hodge) helping as best they can. Then the news comes that Adrian is dead, he’s killed himself, and though she can barely believe it, Cece starts to hope for some peace at last. And then shit starts getting weird.
TheInvisibleMan is essentially the story of an abusive relationship with a science-gone-amok twist and it works beautifully, making the film feel thematically relevant. However, even if you ignore the subtext, it’s an absolute pearler of a thriller in its own right. Whannell has eschewed the fun, trashy vibe of his previous flick – the woefully underrated Upgrade (2018) – and adopted a style more in line with the likes of DePalma or Hitchcock. Expect long, lingering takes that play with negative space, genuinely edge-of-your-seat sequences that skillfully ratchet up the tension and a score that channels the orchestral ghost of Bernard Herrmann.
Moss is superb as the PTSD-suffering Cecilia, showcasing an impressive range of emotion, and is backed up by a capable support cast, including Michael Dorman as Adrian’s slimy lawyer brother, Tom. Ironically the only cast member who fails to make an impact is Adrian himself, who never quite convinces when he’s on the visual spectrum. When he’s invisible, however? Whole other story.
Ultimately, TheInvisibleMan is a triumph. Rising from the ashes of Universal’s failed Dark Universe experiment, it offers a clever, engrossing and frequently genuinely scary genre flick made on a limited budget with a stellar cast and thematic resonance. Whether taken as an allegory for spousal abuse, or viewed simply as a deft cat and mouse thriller, TheInvisibleMan is a superb genre effort that absolutely deserves to be seen.
Anyone who has ever taken the time to glimpse at the more feminist side of art criticism, film in particular, will have likely come across the term ‘male gaze’. In essence, it is the specific mode in which men (whether behind the camera, as part of the captured image or even as part of the audience) observe women. This is most commonly understood as a framework in which, to quote critic John Berger, “men act and women appear”.
But even beyond the sexual connotations of such things, there is also the more general example of how, when you get down to brass tacks, there is a marked difference between men telling the stories of women and women telling their own. It’s the reason why sexual objectification on film prevails in its bleedingly obvious fashion, and it’s why this film, in particular, needs to exist as counterargument.
In Undertow, it’s almost bizarre just how refreshing the visuals are, as captured by writer/director Miranda Nation and DOP Bonnie Elliott. While there’s a definite sensuality to be found here, the blocking and framing of the female bodies on-screen feel more in-line with the works of Catherine Breillat than anything in the modern mainstream.
As the camera glides across the many bumps on Laura Gordon’s skin in Undertow, it presents the body as this almost divine living landscape, as bristling and chaotic as the waves that give the film, and its title, its main symbolic reference point.
But the emphasis on female agency is stitched throughout the film’s textual side as well, presenting Gordon’s Claire as a mother who lost her child in the womb and, after a chance encounter, develops an obsessive fascination with the teenaged Angie (Olivia DeJonge, whom audiences might feel a tinge of whiplash in seeing here, if their only other exposure to her work is with the similarly image-fixated The Visit by M. Night Shyamalan).
The way Nation details Claire’s trauma, grief and sexual frustrations reflect a certain Jennifer Kent-esque boldness in how uncompromising it is, from the more explicitly psychological moments to the poetic, like the images of the dead refracted through a haze of blood, wine and lipstick. And in the contrast between Claire and Angie, the film ends up depicting aspects of the male gaze in a remarkably subtle fashion, managing to get across the double standards placed on women by men, society and even other women without making it a noisy spectacle.
This is the kind of film that is in unfortunately rare supply, as an inherently feminine story told through primarily feminine hands, and the end result only highlights how much of a genuine shame that is. As erotically-tinged psycho-thriller, heartbreaking character study, and proud feminist confession, Undertow makes for resonant cinema, and one only hopes that Miranda Nation and company keep up with this level of quality in the future.