Friday, October 15, 2010

The American Nightmare

After I finished watching the remake of George A. Romero's The Crazies (2010, directed by Breck Eisner), all I could think was: "Wow, that movie really taps the zeitgeist." I also thought: "There's a masters thesis in this movie." That's not to say that it's any kind of masterpiece--it's not--but it might be the most interesting horror movie I've seen in a decade.

The set-up is familiar, of course: a spilled biological weapon turns the inhabitants of a small Iowa town into frothing, homicidal maniacs. This is essentially a zombie movie, although the "zombies" aren't dead, per se, and they are certainly more creative with their violence--this is a farming community complete with farm implements, after all. They don't eat people, either. We also have our small group of plucky, uninfected heroes. You have the nice guy sheriff (Timothy Olyphant) and his doctor wife who happens to be pregnant (Radha Mitchell), his deputy (Joe Anderson), and her nurse (Danielle Panabaker). In some ways, you can tick the cliched elements off on a list. The structure of the movie is familiar, too, and here, you edge into masters thesis territory. A comparison to the structure of this movie and Romero's original provides a kind of crystalline insight into the way moviemaking has changed. Romero's original was an almost stream of consciousness experience, with elements occurring in an organic progression. The new film is built around set pieces, with a new set piece seeming to cycle in on the reel changes every ten minutes with metronomic precision. There's nothing wrong with this, as I say, but it's indicative of a film that has been designed as product rather than as expression. That said, I find the new film easier to watch than the old. While the old film arguably more perfectly matches the syntax of nightmares, it also has an off-putting grottiness to it, and parts of it are kind of dull. The new film has a high gloss sheen that it puts to good use. It's also less clinical, due to the filmmakers insisting on using its cliched characters as an audience point of view; the original film makes no such concessions.

In any event. This has some arresting set-pieces, since that's how it's constructed. Because it lives and dies by these sequences, it's only fair to meet it half way and note that as a piece of contemporary horror filmmaking, it's well done of its type. There's a cool professionalism in how these sequences are filmed, but that doesn't mitigate their effectiveness. The best of the set-pieces involves a deranged medical examiner and a bone saw that put me in mind of a similar scene in Re-Animator, and there is another in which an insane man with a pitchfork is loosed on a medical unit where all the people are tied down. In the second half of the movie, the set-pieces generally conclude with one of our heroes showing up at the very last second and dispatching the threat with a gunshot from off screen. After a while, this convention kind of cheapens things. Still, the scene at the car wash in which our heroes are hiding from an Apache helicopter has a brutal conclusion that goes against this grain. And the film's nuclear ending is pretty awesome to behold.

The new film also has a more systematic sense of how to use its symbolism:

The way the film unfolds is purely schematic: You have an idyllic Apollonian ideal of small town America that the film burns to the ground. It shows this destruction in a brief prologue before laying on the Americana. It lays it on thick. In addition to things like the baseball game that starts the film or the guys out duck hunting in the marshes (the film is set in a town named "Ogden Marsh"), you have a cinematographer in Maxime Alexandre who seems to have made a close study of epic American landscapes, the early films of Terence Malick, and Norman Rockwell. On a purely visual level, The Crazies is particularly attractive. The various landscape vistas are drenched in an "American" light, and the location shooting in Iowa pays huge dividends when it comes to providing an archetype of the American heartland. This is amplified, too, by the choice of Johnny Cash's cover of "We'll Meet Again" to open the movie (with a tip of the hat to Dawn of the Dead), and Willie Nelson's "Bring Me Sunshine" at the end. This last displays an unusual level of wit, given the way the movie ends.

If anything, the movie may actually be too quick on the draw when it comes to loosing the dragons on Eden, though. The first "crazy" walks out on the baseball field in the first sequence, raises a shotgun, and gets shot down by our hero sheriff, all before we have a good idea of who the characters are and their respective qualities. But that may actually be incidental, because, at a base level, this movie is about mobs.

In terms of imagery, The Crazies offers an almost universal kind of American paranoia. On the one hand, this film caters to the fears of urban, liberal progressive America by hinting that the people out in the sticks have gone nuts. The scene late in the movie, as our heroes are trying to find a vehicle they can use to escape, distills this to a fine point: you have a gang of rednecks who are hunting people and stacking them in the back of a pick-up truck like so much cordwood. There's a dark shadow of the militia movement here (the specific cultural point of reference it suggests to me is The Turner Diaries, Tim McVeigh's favorite book). Certainly, the scene at the truck stop near the end is suggestive of this stuff, too. But then there's the flipside. This film's depiction of clean-suited stormtroopers is the very avatar of the tea party ideal of an oppressive American government. The enforced viral clinic in the center part of the movie might be the right's most vivid nightmare of socialized medicine. The fact that the government troops strip the town of firearms plays to this segment, too. The movie doesn't seem capable of picking sides, which is cowardly, true, but probably also necessary.

I'll give the film credit for not backing off the end of the original, when the eye in the sky nukes the entire town. There's still a dark chill in that image that transcends generational changes in politics and filmmaking conventions. But I will take the filmmakers to task for giving the audience an out, too. There's a token nod to the abject nihilism of the first film, but it mostly comes as credit cookies (again, tip of the hat to Dawn of the Dead). This is the difference between the radical horror film (Romero's film) and the reactionary horror film (this one, though only mildly): The former opens Pandora's box and lets things follow to their logical conclusion, even if that means that the world spins well and truly into the abyss. The latter clamps down the lid in the end, and makes at least some effort to comfort the audience that things might right themselves, that the order of the world might be restored. It indulges in the equivalent of "nuking the fridge" in order to do this.

Like I say, an endlessly interesting movie, and one I wouldn't mind revisiting. That's worth something, I guess, and more than I usually get out of contemporary horror movies. Take that any way you like.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 15

First Time Viewings: 15

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