Known for his work on the Rec series, in Veronica director Paco Plaza turns his attention to the story of the titular fifteen year old, played by newcomer Sandra Escacena. After dabbling with a Ouija Board during a solar eclipse, Veronica summons something that follows her back home and duly terrorises the teenager and her younger siblings (although not the other teenage participants who also used the Ouija Board, which seems odd). With their mother working late at night in a cafe, the fatherless children are left to their own devices, and Veronica as the eldest is responsible for making sure that the day-to-day of family life flows as it should.
Conceptually the idea of children stranded in an apartment in Madrid with an unknown monstrous entity should be enough to spark a real sense of claustrophobic horror. Two of the most unnerving films made transform the humble European flat into a true nightmare – Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976, both directed by Roman Polanski) find sinister shadows, scary neighbours, and narratives of bleak psychological horror in every inch of heavily populated inner city buildings. Sadly Veronica appears to eschew the real potentials for terror, and while the film could have explored the alone-in-the-city feeling of the apartment, it never really pushes the vulnerability of the protagonists as much as it could.
Instead, the movie relies on more conventional jump scares and comparatively unsurprising narrative twists. While the presence of a chain-smoking, blind nun known to the school children as Sister Death locates the film in the dogma of religion, the sister warns that through her actions Veronica has forgone the world of God – “God has got nothing to do with it. Leave Him out of it” – but the ramifications (and implicit horrors) of such theological and metaphysical debates, especially in a genre which spawned films such as The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), are never fully explored.
The film has been heavily promoted as the ‘scariest film ever’, but that seems remarkable considering what a grab-bag of cliches it is. According to the closing credits (and much online chatter) the film is based on real events, but a cursory glance at news sources suggests that the film is perhaps a loose adaptation inspired by the story of Estefania Gutierrez Lazaro, who died in a hospital several months after playing with a Ouija Board and after experiencing “seizures and hallucinations”. In Veronica the youthful cast deliver effective performances, but despite this, and an undoubted understanding of the genre by the filmmakers, the film never reaches anything like genuine fear. In the final eventuality, the horror of a teenager struggling to protect her younger siblings in a world devoid of adult protection, and seemingly abandoned to evil, should make the viewer experience terror, instead it makes you wonder who the hell said this was the scariest film ever made.
Following on from the events of Season 1 (and last year’s The Defenders, barely referenced), life goes on for Marvel’s resident superpowered private sleuth, the titular Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter). Of course, the past is never too far away in this series, which makes the processing of trauma its key concern, and so the hard-drinking, poor-life-choice-making Jones must now deal not only with the ongoing PTSD born out of her enslavement by the horrifically evil Kilgrave (David Tennant), but fresh mental wounds opened up by her breaking his damn neck in last season’s climax.
She does, however, have plenty to distract her, thanks to her messy life and career. Indeed, the first few episodes of JJS2 throw out a number of seemingly disparate plot threads and character arcs that will doubtless cohere by the final episode in true hard boiled/film noir fashion (this season really leans into its noir influences, up to and including dry voice-over narration and moody sax on the soundtrack). A paranoid, overweight speedster wants protection from mysterious forces that may or may not be threatening him (he knows he’s not well – “With great power comes great mental illness,” he quips). An arrogant, high class PI (Terry Chen) wants to buy out Alias Investigations for the prestige of having a superhuman on his staff. Neighbour-turned-assistant Malcolm (Eka Darville) is bucking for more responsibility, while bestie Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) deals with a multitude of issues, from professional ambition to romantic drama to the continued oppressive presence of her toxic AF mother (a deliciously vile Rebecca de Mornay).
There are a lot of balls in the air to keep track of, but in terms of plot the season is definitely canting in the direction of the past, specifically what would be termed Jessica’s “super hero origin story” in a lighter series that could stand including such a trite descriptor. It turns out her powers are the result of being experimented upon by a shadowy black science outfit called IGH in the aftermath of the car accident that killed her parents. She has no memory of the period, but events conspire to force her to look inwards and backwards.
Not something she’s particularly good at – what sets Jones apart as a female protagonist is how incredibly flawed she’s allowed to be. She’s a self-destructive alcoholic who engages in dangerous sex and is absolutely loathe to turn her incredible powers of insight and deduction inwards – so, of course, that’s exactly what the series forces her to do. Krysten Ritter has really settled into the role since her first outing back in 2015. With a character like this, whose demeanour is predicated in prickly abrasiveness and snarky patter, there’s always a risk of drifting into affectation. Ritter give her layers, and it can;t be easy portraying the inner life of a character whose standard operating procedure is to pretend that inner life doesn’t exist.
Incredibly, Ritter isn’t the MVP in the acting stakes thus far – that honour goes to Carrie-Ann Moss, whose icy lawyer, Jeri Hogarth, has been a frequent flyer in the Netflix MCU properties but here really gets to shine. A medical and professional crisis shakes Hogarth’s normally rigid self-control and, what do you know, it tuns out that she can be just as self-annihilating and reckless as our eponymous heroine – she’s just normally better at hiding it. Moss is flat-out fantastic as a woman coming to terms with the fact that, for all her wealth, power, intelligence and sheer will, she’s vulnerable to things completely outside of control.
Understanding the limits of control is one of – if not the – major thematic concern of Season 2. For all that it deals with PTSD, abuse, addiction (Oh, Trish), the casting couch (Trish again), common across the board is the notion that characters are grappling with their frustration over their lack of control over their lives, or else learning to draw strength from understanding what they do have influence over. It’s all very Stoic. The past is set, the actions of others are difficult to change without conflict, scars are permanent, diseases are indifferent, and entrenched power structures and covert conspiracies alike grind ordinary people to dust, but knowledge and mastery of the self is a goal worth fighting for – and the only real goal attainable. It’s a smart and logical extension of the first season’s explorations – don’t forget, what made Kilgrave such a compelling and terrifying villain was his ability to take away that self-mastery from anyone.
So far (the first five episodes were released to critics for review purposes) season 2 lacks a singular villain of such narrative power, but this is, let us not forget, a mystery, and some confusion and murkiness in the early stages is to be expected. What makes Jessica Jones great television is its thematic coherence – it knows what its about, more so than any other Marvel series on Netflix or off. If the new season manages to carry that forward through to the final episode, it’ll be one for the books.
In near future Berlin, Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), a mute Amish (!) bartender, is set on a twisting trail of mystery and violence when his girlfriend (Seyneb Saleh) abruptly disappears on him. Does her disappearance have anything to do with underground surgeons Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux)? And, even if it does, will you care?
Well no, probably not. The fourth film from Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code, Warcraft) is a massive, confused misfire, a noir pastiche inexplicably set in a near future cyberpunk milieu while being neither particularly “cyber” nor “punk”. More than any other film in recent memory, Mute is a pointless genre exercise, in that there is absolutely nothing in it that necessitates it being a genre film at all; its science fiction elements are all window dressing, none of them explicitly necessary to the plot and, more importantly, the themes being explored.
Neither of which – plot or theme – are in any way clearly discernible, at least without a deeper level of contemplation than Mute does anything to earn. What we’re left with then is the characters, who are either unknowable (Skarsgård) or unlikable (absolutely everyone else); the aesthetic, which is more Strange Days in its retrofitted near-future-ness than Blade Runner but still fairly un-engaging; and the action, which is almost non-existent.
Of course, it’s not meant to be an action movie, it’s a noir, a hypothetical defender might say. Mute has been compared to Casablanca by a number of people who have apparently never seen any other film that might be film noir adjacent except bloody Blade Runner, and that apparently includes Jones himself. There’s actually almost nothing in Mute that rhymes, narratively-speaking, with Casablanca, which has an entirely different setting, plot, theme, and set of characters, including its protagonist. You could make a case for our silent hero here being of a type with other Bogart characters, such as The Maltese Falcon‘s Sam Spade and The Big Sleep‘s Philip Marlowe, going down those famously mean streets, except that Bogie was always watchable and poor Leo, despite Skarsgård’s best efforts, is not. While the idea of a technophobic protagonist having to navigate a high tech/low life setting must have appealed to somebody as an elevator pitch, in the end we’re left with a guy we don’t know doing things he doesn’t understand for reasons that remain purposefully obscure for most of the film.
Jones actually knows this, which is why the story bifurcates, spending as much time with Duck and Cactus Bill, two ex-military medics who make money sewing up mob soldiers, as they just kind of hang out doing stuff until the time ploddingly comes for them to intersect with Leo’s plot in a meaningful (sort of) way. A moment of Pavlovian satisfaction may come when you realise that Rudd and Theroux are doing a riff on Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland in Robert Altman’s original M*A*S*H*, the pros from Dover re-imagined as two amoral pansexual hedonists on a tear through future noir Berlin instead of Korean War-era Japan. Then again, it may not.
So what’s it all about? About 40 minutes too long. That aside, It’s a sophomoric work whose symbols aren’t actually attached to any internal system of meaning, but whose pretentious contempt for narrative action means it relies heavily on those same undernourished symbols. It’s a scornful film that seems far too pleased with its own anaemic artfulness, standing on the shoulders of older, better works, yet somehow failing to see any further – or, indeed, as far. It’s a cipher that defies easy analysis not because its language is too complex, but because it’s too haphazard and bereft of meaning altogether. It’s a mess is what it is, and one destined to fester in the depths of the Netflix Originals vault, only recalled when the recommendations algorithm occasionally churns it to the surface to a chorus of “Oh yeah, that fucking thing” from users who, if they value their time at all, should click elsewhere.