While there’s plenty of reason to lament the increasingly repetitive nature of big-budget films, the end of last year did bring a small glut of ambitious imaginative leaps aimed at grownups, for better and for worse. They were, in descending qualitative order, Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Bardo, Noam Baumbach’s White Noise, David O. Russel’s Amsterdam, and Damian Chazelle’s Babylon. None were critical triumphs, and commercially their fates probably ensured that not a lot of auteurist phantasmagoria is going to be funded on a similar scale in the near future. But even at their worst—and the last two were pretty WTF—their existence was cheering, simply for flying in the face of today’s straitjacketed studio logic, which has so little room for non-franchise projects.
This year-end there’s no equivalent explosion of extravagant risk-taking, unless you count Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn (which ultimately disappoints in its derivative ideas), or Ridley Scott’s Napoleon—a big historical epic that’s daring only in that its ilk has gone out of fashion. Late 2023 really has just one true going-out-on-a-limb-then-sawing-it-off enterprise, and while it too is a mixed bag, it’s better than all the above-named films. Though it’s also likely to be at least as “polarizing” (a term that generally means “massive hostility in most quarters” now) as any of them.
Poor Things is the latest from Yorgos Lanthimos, whose penchant for grotesque black-comedy psychodrama first caught the attention of viewers outside Greece with 2009’s Dogtooth. The Lobster (2015) was an auspicious entry into English-language cinema, though the subsequent Killing of a Sacred Deer felt like a creative step backward. The danger that he might have too limited a thematic and tonal range, however, was dashed by The Favorite, an 18th-century palace costume intrigue as much like Salo as, say, Elizabeth—something sufficiently “sumptuous” for the genre yet gleefully perverse. One wondered how he’d top it. And he certainly has, though those who enjoyed The Favorite for being kinda-sorta Merchant-Ivory adjacent may be truly appalled at what he’s got up to this time.
This is more or less a steampunk riff on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, filtered through the macabre-yet-prankish sensibility of the director and his returning scenarist Tony McNamara (who also wrote the acclaimed Russian royalty broadcast series The Great). In a London that we at first assume to be occupying the moments around the end of the Victorian era—eventually it is clear this story takes place in no particular time, or entirely recognizable world—Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) is a respected if off-puttingly eccentric and unpleasantly disfigured surgeon who teaches at a medical college.
Taking on student Max (Ramy Youssef) as assistant, he introduces the wide-eyed but adaptable youth to his ward Bella (Emma Stone), a sort of feral adult who occasions the remark “What a very pretty ret**d.” (This movie’s fantastical air will allow it to get away with considerably greater offenses.)
She calls her guardian “God”—which he doesn’t mind in the least—is the bane of aptly named housekeeper Mrs. Prim’s (Vicky Pepperdine) existence, and is in the process of learning how to speak, eat, and other basics from the ground up. She has no shame, or morality, or manners… matters of no great concern to her keeper, though the more conventional Max may feel otherwise. Thus when she discovers her erogenous zones, they get explored with a frank, open enthusiasm you might more typically find on display at the zoo.
It is perhaps unfortunate—particularly for Max, who has just pledged his so-far chaste love to Bella—that at this juncture she makes the acquaintance of one Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a lawyer whose services Dr. Baxter requires. He is also what one might call a rapscallion, a bounder, a lascivious cad, and so forth. After setting eyes on the fascinatingly naive and erotically precocious Bella, he is soon climbing the trellis outside her bedroom to suggest she flee her gilded cage and “see the world.” Being a curious sort, she consents, to her minders’ grief. Bella’s dynamic with her bedazzled, eventually beleaguered new consort recalls what Madonna once told David Letterman when asked about her then-boyfriend Warren Beatty: “Oh, he’s satiable.”
At this point Poor Things becomes a globe-trotting picaresque in in which our heroine stubbornly persists on learning and growing from every misadventure. On a cruise ship, she makes the edifying acquaintance of dowager Martha (Hanna Schygulla) and her companion Harry (Jerrod Carmichael). She witnesses other societies’ splendors and gross inequities. When fortune ceases to smile, she takes up a very old profession, albeit on her own terms, refusing to feel degraded or allow a customer’s pleasure to be prioritized above her own. What in the actual Victorian era would have been played as a tragic downfall instead registers here as a circuitous self-education by a character who is allowed to—well, insists on—determining who she will become. She may have been born as a laboratory experiment, but subsequent field studies and thesis conclusions are all her own.
I’ve no idea how close the filmmakers hew to Scottish writer Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel, though having read his Lanark: A Life in Four Books, it seems likely they didn’t stray too far in playfully sardonic gist. The screen Poor Things is extraordinary in design terms, any seams between CGI and physical production design invisible, the costumes and sets and whatnot all utterly distinctive—extravagant, beautiful, bizarre. Yet there is plenty of content here that runs a gamut from the queasy to the revolting, adding perhaps a tad more Elephant Man to your Jules Verne-esque fantasia than many will be comfortable with.
Stone, looking like an Edward Gorey ingenue, digs into the freakish, brusque, and unruly aspects of her figure, resisting the urge to soften Bella’s jagged edges. (One could say the same of Jerskin Fendrix’s astringent musical score.) The grotesquerie might overpower the imaginative spectacle if not for Ruffalo, who reveals a farceur we didn’t know he had in him. Getting laughs by means sometimes as simple as the way he turns his head, his vain, self-absorbed hedonist is so hilarious he leavens the entire film, rendering its darker elements easier to take. Poor Things will certainly elicit diverse responses. But it’s an original, a monster stitched together from parts of Pygmalion, Benjamin Button, The Holy Mountain, and umpteen other bodies that still feels like its own proud, ungainly beast. It opens in theaters Fri/8.
The catalyst figures in two other worthwhile new movies are also transgressive types, though even they look like normies in comparison to Poor Things.
In Lady Macbeth director William Oldroyd’s Eileen, adapted from Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2015 debut novel, Thomasin McKenzie plays the titular figure—a young woman in early 1960s Boston who should be at the start of a life’s grand adventure, but instead already seems to be serving an incarcerated life sentence. In fact she’s employed at a “boys’ prison,” a juvenile facility that is as miserable for staff as it is for inmates. At home things are, if anything, even worse: Eileen is stuck being caretaker to an ungrateful ex-cop father (Shea Whigham) who sometimes goes outside in his bathroom to drunkenly wave a gun at no one in particular. It’s a depressing existence, surrounded by hostile and loutish behavior, from which our heroine seemingly has no escape routes—save fantasies of killing dad and/or herself.
Until, that is, the arrival of Rebecca St. John (Anne Hathaway), an impossibly glamorous figure in this bleak environment. The institution’s new in-house psychiatrist, she’s a Harvard grad who is chic, flirty, worldly, and full of daring confidences. Needless to say, Eileen is wholly smitten, desperation making her an easy mark for manipulation. And indeed, Rebecca does turn out to be not just a liberating influence but a dangerous, unstable, duplicitous one.
This intriguing psychological drama strains credibility when it lunges into pulpier suspense territory, ending up somewhat unsatisfyingly suspended between character study and thriller. Still, the central dynamic is compelling—particularly in the hands of Hathaway, who once again proves that she is at her best when farthest from her usual acting comfort zone. She’s as vivid and surprising here as she was annoyingly cute just a couple months ago in the misfired quirkfest She Came to Me. Eileen stumbles after a while, but the strengths of its atmosphere and performances linger after the contrived melodramatics fade from memory. It opens in theaters this Fri/8.
More purely escapist, Fast Charlie from veteran Australian director Philip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence, Patriot Games, Dead Calm et al.) is nonetheless the kind of sardonically witty, character-focused caper seldom seen anymore amidst more bombastic action movies. Pierce Brosnan plays a mob enforcer who ought to be enjoying a well-earned retirement. Instead, he finds himself sucked into a Southern syndicate war, traveling from Biloxi to New Orleans in order to save his own neck and snap a few others.
Based on Victor Gischler’s 2001 novel Gun Monkeys, this is a twisty Southern noir with lots of energy, a high body count, some droll dialogue, and a very colorful roster of gallery of rogues including the late James Caan in one of his last roles. It’s a semi-tongue-in-cheek shoot ‘em up that is fun—and not dumb fun, for a change. Fast Charlie is only playing the Bay Area theatrically at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael as of Fri/8, but releases that same day to On Demand platforms.