One of the lesser-remembered megaflops in of the 1980s was the 1984 adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. It had other problems, but the main one was also probably the reason it got made: Bill Murray, newly annoited a superstar, wanted to play the spiritually questing hero whose search for meaning leads him from the trenches of WWI to a guru’s mountaintop in Nepal. Hey, I read the novel in junior high and it made a big impression on me, too, though I’d be afraid to re-read it for the same reasons I learned not to revisit Hermann Hesse: Once you’ve reached a certain age, most people no longer have the jones for vague mystical hoohah that they did as a youth.
The primary reason the film was a fiasco, however, was that while his intentions were no doubt pure, Murray obviously didn’t understand his own appeal, or limits. Absolutely no one wanted to see the king of screen sarcasm as an earnest seeker of truth, and those who saw it anyway tended to giggle in the wrong places because his presence seemed to inherently ridicule the material.
Almost equally flummoxing for similar reasons is the new Nobody, starring Bob Odenkirk, who is also a producer on it, and whose own outfit is one of its principal production companies. You may know him as a prolific comic actor (most conspicuously of late on Better Call Saul), writer (on SNL, Mr. Show, Conan O’Brien, etc.) and director (various TV episodes plus a few features). He is one of those people you may not be able to name, but whose face immediately brightens prospects when seen onscreen; he is funny, and likable, even when playing a jerk like the shady lawyer on Breaking Bad. Unfortunately, it seems Odenkirk has had a dream all this time, not to be the best Bob Odenkirk he can be, but rather…Vin Diesel? Or someone like that, a dozen of whom are not worth one funny, likable Bob Odenkirk.
Yet here’s Nobody, in which he does his damndest to be humorlessly kick-ass in the dumbest possible kind of braindead action movie, an imitation John Wickall the more second-hand for being penned by the actual writer of the John Wick movies. As with Russian musician and music-video creator Ilya Naishuller’s prior feature, Hardcore Henry, this movie feels as if a thousand generic mainstream action movies had been fed into a computer, which then spat out a script-length compendium of their most common tropes. Unlike that earlier film, Nobody is not a gimmicky exercise in subjective cinema a la a First Person Shooter-type video game. But it’s no less inane an adolescent fantasy of violent uber-machismo.
Hutch (Odenkirk) is a worker drone who gets no respect from his wife (Connie Nielsen), kids, and coworkers. They seem to think he’s a wuss, particularly after he declines (for reasons we later understand) to attack burglars who invade his home, and threaten his teenage son. But a milquetoast coward is not who Hutch really is. In fact, he is secretly an ex-supermega-secret-government-enforcer…or, er, something like that. Feeling misunderstood, he takes out his frustrations on some young, well-armed hooligans on a public bus, leaving all five in sorry shape. Alas, among them was the brother of a psycho Russian mobster (Aleksey Serebryakov). So soon Hutch has to reveal how awesome he really is all the time, in order to save himself and his family from virtual armies of evil Russkie bruisers.
Generically conceived though it may be, Nobody is not boring. Naishuller is a confident craftsman who stages the nearly-nonstop action well—even if the fights/stuntwork are hardly John Wilk-caliber, and his directorial style has yet to refine itself into anything more distinctive than a slightly more supple variation on Michael Bay’s “big swinging dick” mode of turbo oafdom. You’d think a movie that has a line like “GIVE ME THE GODDAM KITTY-KAT BRACELET MOTHERFUCKER!!” (it does makes sense in context) would have a sense of humor, but Naishuller defies that expectation. Unless you count his “ironic” use of soundtrack-blasted golden oldies like “My Way” and “The Impossible Dream,” a clod’s idea of wit that was already overdone in Hardcore Henry.
The moral of this story, apparently, is that Dad really is “man enough,” so long as he sidelines as an Unstoppable Killing Machine. (And yes, the wife and kids are duly impressed.) That this reactionary fantasy should be embodied by Bob Odenkirk is…well, odd, to say the least. Not that he’s bad in the role; he’s OK, “proving himself” complete with the de rigueur scene in which he gets to take his shirt off so we can say, “Oh, he IS in good shape!” But just about any actor willing to spend a few weeks with a trainer, and who’s backed by good stunt personnel, could do as well. Utterly talentless thespians (Diesel, Seagal, et al.) have done better in exactly this kind of all-muscle, no-brainer part.
Fine, you can never underestimate the private vanities of actors, or blame them for having the same banal pipe dreams of arse-whuppin’ herodom as millions of others. But Bob Odenkirk? This is like finding out that Parker Posey really wishes she were Pamela Anderson—a deflating insight. Nobody opened at theaters nationwide last Friday.
Other new movies are also tilted towards suspense, albeit of very different stripes from the above:
Another revenge tale, yet the diametric opposite of Nobody’s knucklehead hyper-masculinity, is this debut feature from Canadian writer-directors Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli. The first plays Miriam, who with husband Caleb (Obi Abili) is visiting her sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and her husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) at a lakeside rural family cottage. It seems a happy enough reunion at first, but everyone here has some problematic shared history (little of it clearly explained). We gradually glean that Miriam’s marriage is in trouble, and her sibling relationship long-damaged, something not helped when she tries to persuade Greta that Dylan is the wrong man for her. Yet it’s Miriam and Dylan who end up spending a long drunken night together by the campfire that ends in… what? Assault? A consensual makeout session that crosses a line?
If we’re not entirely sure, that’s in large part because the longer Violation goes on, the more we wonder whether what drives Miriam to some horrific eventual acts is the result of PTSD based on a real grievance, or some kind of delusion. (An amateur diagnosis might suggest she suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder, at the least.) This often strikingly shot story told in non-chronological order is full of disturbing ambiguities. It’s sometimes stylistically mannered to excess, and surely did not need to be almost two full hours. You might end up feeling frustrated by its murky narrative, as well as repulsed by some very graphic violence. But Violation makes an arresting statement, even if you may not be entirely sure what that statement ultimately is. It is currently streaming on genre platform Shudder.
This 2019 Taiwanese film also wades into MeToo territory in disturbing and ambiguous ways. Wu Ke-xi plays the titular character, a 30-ish actress who’s been in Taipei nearly a decade without getting a break. Finally she’s up for a major film role, which she accepts despite trepidations about the expected sex scenes and full-frontal nudity. But once production starts, those factors join a long list of other, unexpected anxiety sources. Not least among them is the fact that the director seems to solely target her for criticism among the cast—and his “direction” sometimes crosses into physical abuse.
But at the same time, this narrative (written by film star and director Midi Z) deliberately clouds our certainty as to what exactly is or isn’t going on. There’s a general paranoid atmosphere; real-life events increasingly blur into film-within-the-film scenes, as well as Nina’s nightmares; after a certain point we’re informed her father is unstable, and wonder if mental illness runs in the family. Eventually one startling event in the present tense suggests her fears of persecution are justified, then another glimpsed in flashback provides a reason for suppressed-memory PTSD. Nonetheless, by that point our perception has been undermined in so many ways, we’re not certain any interpretation is completely reliable.
Often boldly stylized by director Z (who’s originally from Myanmar), Nina Wu is a provocative puzzle that means to leave you dislocated and upset. His ongoing collaborator Wu Ke-xi apparently drew on personal experiences in the industry for the script, lending it an additional frisson, since some of the “professional” incidents depicted here are chillingly callous, humiliating and exploitative. Even the supposed upside of the heroine’s eventual, hard-won new fame is presented as being discomfitingly invasive. It’s a compelling film, if hardly an easy watch. Currently playing in the Museum of the Moving Image’s virtual cinema, Nina Wu adds more such venues, On Demand and digital platforms this Fri/2.
Another tricksy narrative, albeit to much more straightforward genre-flick ends, is presented by this Canadian supernatural thriller from writer-director Michael Nader. He previously co-wrote 2018’s Head Count, an unusually subtle and intriguing horror opus, with its director Elle Callahan. Her own second feature Witch Hunt, which just premiered at SXSW, is a somewhat disappointingly on-the-nose affair by contrast. Nader’s major contribution to the prior film is underlined by The Toll’s similarly hinging on a largely unseen otherworldly menace that plays perceptual games with the protagonists. But this movie, too, is finally much more literal-minded than its better predecessor.
It starts out well enough, with rideshare driver Spencer (Max Topplin) picking up Cami (Jordan Hayes) at the airport. She’s heading to her father’s place way out in “the boonies” after grueling flight delays. So she’s tired, perhaps a little more snippy than necessary with her awkwardly garrulous driver, whom she finds a tad creepy. That feeling increases when circumstances strand them on a remote road in the middle of the night—her fears only heightened by his bad-taste joking about being “some serial killer.” But then things start happening that neither of them could have possibly orchestrated. A woman driving past on a tractor susses that she can’t help them because “I’m not where you are”: They have somehow strayed into the nether realm of local-folkloric figure The Toll Man, who will not let them escape until they’ve “paid the toll” with somebody’s life.
The tricks that “Man” plays on them prey on their individual backstories, sometimes setting them against each other; they also draw on other movies, from Blair Witch and Eyes Wide Shut to Silent Hill. Indeed, The Toll keeps getting more silly and second-hand, until it springs a late “twist” which haplessly undermines the logic of most character behavior before it. Though adequately crafted and acted, with a welcome disinterest in gore, this is ultimately just another dumb and derivative horror movie—exactly what Head Count was not. Saban Films released it to limited theaters, VOD and Digital last Fri/26.