I'm no film director, but I think there's a limit to the amount of suspense a film can build through repetition of slowly zooming out from a cold, lonely British man's face as he gazes, perplexed, into the distance. Evidently Tomas Alfredson does not share my theory, because another apt four-word title for this film might be "Emotional Old Brits Stare." There are a handful of shocking, tense moments which do stand out, mostly because they manage to raise our pulses beyond comatose, but they are far too scattered to make this film remotely interesting. It felt like an earnest attempt to recreate the paranoid tension of Coppola's brilliant neurotic character study The Conversation, but it truly fails to let us connect with any character, particularly protagonist George Smiley, played with a gentle depth by Oldman that might be interesting if only it were supported in any way by the story or the film making. By the time a resolution rolls around, we don't care who did it, nor do we care whether Smiley succeeds; we mostly just want it to be finished. It's a bizarre disconnect I can't quite put my finger on -- clearly all the characters involved understand the stakes, desperately seek salvation, and react appropriately with every twist and turn, and yet we feel completely ostracized from the action. Normally, empathizing with any hero's journey simply requires an understanding of why the character is driven to these actions, which we relate to on our terms; but like this film's bizarre metaphor, all the pieces are there, but the game isn't worth playing.
It's a well-written, well-performed story that's crafted in a fairly boring manner. Gosling proves he's the cream of the crop for today's leading-male brand actor, Clooney hides dark secrets behind that smug grin just as we'd expect, and this film wins the award for realizing that Hoffman and Giamatti are Gemini twins in the cosmic family of brilliant character actors. The dialogue feels fresh and relevant without being contrived, and the bits of political rhetoric are just annoying enough to feel truthful. The story may be full of buzz issues and dramatic cliche, but in a political sphere where a war of empty words can still feel razor sharp, personal, and devastating to those of us who "drink the koolaid" for certain candidates or issues, it matches the setting well and, moreover, allows us to actually decide whether we like our protagonist and his counterparts or not -- a decision so often forced upon us in films no matter how flawed our hero might be. That said, Clooney's direction feels rather choice-less, particularly early on, with a few exceptions -- Gosling's silhouette overpowered by a giant American flag, an unseen scene in the back of a campaign car, and a slow pan through the world's creepiest kitchen among them -- but the impulse to just let his talented cast do their work in front of a couple cameras was certainly a good one. Finally, I'd suggest training yourself to substitute your favorite non-mainstream American political parties every time they say "Democrat" or "Republican" (Bull-Moose vs. The Rent Is Too Damn High, perhaps?), or whatever else you need to do, because the film clearly isn't about any particular affiliation or stance, and I've heard too many people complain about its simplification or inaccuracy towards party stereotypes. What it successfully deals with in its political metaphor is our most basic human impulse: self-preservation. Stories rarely get more compelling than that.
For every 10 of these type films that come out, 9 of them are cheesy, sentimental snooze fests. Warhorse wins the exception. Magnificently crafted to be part disney-animal-hope-story, part human-wartime-struggle-drama, every frame builds towards gut-wrenching emotional turmoil without (for the most part) falling into Hallmark channel cliche. With nearly no apparent digital tricks (plenty of enhancement though), you can't help but wonder how the hell they filmed half these scenes without actually injuring the film's star Joey who lives through nearly as much morbid world history as Forrest Gump, and with far more scars to show for it. That's what keeps the film balanced: a visceral connection to this majestic creature and his struggle, all the while empathizing with his many owners despite an overarching hope to see him reunited with the boy who saved his life at the very start. Even typing that brief synopsis, I'm prone to gag; yet you'll simply have to experience the story yourself to understand just how incredibly well crafted it is. In one particular sequence, a rotating windmill blade obscures just enough of a scene to make it poetically devastating instead of a cop-out to censor a tough moment; such sincere choices sweep us just to the good side of the line between easy sentiment and mature empathy. That said, yes, the film does give way to swelling strings a bit too often, and an entire sequence involving a bizarre cease-fire felt a little too cute for its own good. And after the incredibly high stakes surrounding the horse's wartime survival tactics, the final complicating action doesn't quite impact us the way it should, making the climax more of a slow exhale that's, well, fine, but not ideal. Still, for the part of you that wants to believe in miracles, trusts in the goodness of mankind, and hopes your animal companions share the love and dependency you have for them -- just check your cynicism at the door and you'll have a really wonderful time.
I'm stunned by how adeptly this film meshed its style and its content, as either could have easily felt contrived, overly nostalgic, and just plain cheesy had it lacked such grace and boldness. Not only do we get a tribute to the silent film's golden age, complete with its orchestral brilliance and visual camera tricks and gags, but we're completely transfixed by its simple, crystal clear storytelling and gripping emotional journey. The film asks us to do what most modern films take for granted -- make that leap into its world, granted by a suspension of disbelief -- but not just because we aren't used to seeing this kind of film anymore; we're transported due to the powerful visual vocabulary on display, one which pings both halves of our brains as we're forced to work a little harder to make logical sense of what's occurring, all the while having beautiful, tension filled frames poetically entrance our emotional selves. Yes, what I'm describing can (and perhaps should) occur with any film, but only having gone back to the very basics, when films were undiluted by the ease of natural dialogue, can we receive the full artistic impact of this visual medium. And how timely such a film feels even today, as one generation finds itself in constant struggle with the ever-evolving technology of social media and handheld instant communication; how often have we fretted over the surely-hidden meanings behind our own personal "title cards" sent by our friends right into our pockets via text message? If The Artist has a couple weaknesses, they fall in the latter half of the film as we see George Valentin (Jean Dujardin's performance is stellar) dealing with a very complex battle between guilt and pride, particularly as they relate to the talkie star he helped create, Peppy Miller (the perfectly cast Berenice Bejo). At times his descent towards eventual madness felt a little redundant, although a split sequence involving the world's most gut-wrenching onomatopoeic title card builds incredible tension leading up to the film's resolution. The solution offered (I'll try to avoid a spoiler), however, feels somewhat like a cop-out, and I would've rather seen George forced to make an active choice about his future rather than introduce a deus ex machina that falls rather flat. That said, this bittersweet tribute to the grandeur of film is a must watch for everyone who still sits in awe, butterflies in their bellies, every time those lights dim and that feature presentation title card glows on the big screen.