Now that the paint has dried and a few weeks has passed since Velvet Buzzsaw was unveiled on Netflix, it seems a good time as any for this Surgeon to dissect Dan Gilroy’s third movie from the director’s chair.
Gilroy’s debut, Nightcrawler was a disturbing vision of a violent, voyeuristic underbelly of US society as depicted by the media, so there was much anticipation ahead of his third outing.
Teaming up once again with stars Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal, Velvet Buzzsaw promised to be another dark and twisted journey into the recesses of the art world, both of whom excel in their respective parts; Gyllenhaal as Morf Vandewalt (great name by the way), an art critic who’s mind begins to unravel as the true horror behind Arts latest discovery Vetril Dease unleashes an evil that threatens the fabrication of materialism and expression to its foundations and rip it to shreds; and respected gallery owner Rhodora Haze, who is every shadow of perfection, but has a her own demons lurking within.
Having shuffled off this mortal coil, Dease’s work is discovered by Josephina (who also works for Rhodora, and coincidentally is having an affair with Gyllenhaal’s Morf) in his apartment and seeking a chance to lift her profile, nabs the lot in search of fortune.
And therein lies the rub.
Every character it seems is in search of their own personal glorification and with each stride to ‘perfection’, they fall deeper into the labyrinth of sin and despair. None more so than Toni Collette’s Gretchen, who gets so bitter and twisted as she distorts and manipulates her grounding in order to establish a firm footing within the Artistic community.
Interestingly though, it’s only those that feed off the creative types and promote their material in order to meet their own ends, are the ones that get popped off one by one. Some, in glorious fashion.
The artists themselves are deeply affected by Dease’s paintings but instead of utter destruction, it only empowers them to go and create again. As if to explore their own passions and free their souls to be reborn, or thrive once more.
The only other exception is Coco
(everyone’s assistant) who is basically everyone’s pawn and unfortunately is
the discoverer of most of the victims.
So far so bloody fabulous. Gilroy does a stellar job at tapping into the heart of the savagery embedded in the Art world, and there are hints of Altmanesque style of direction, as he weaves a multi-layered character narrative.
Ultimately though, where Gilroy succeeded with Nightstalker with its transcendence into hell, with Velvet Buzzsaw, he seems to get lost in the vortex of disillusionment. The more Gilroy subjects his characters to the turmoil within their own psyche, the more fantastical and hyper realistic their world becomes, alienating the audience as a result.
Velvet Buzzsaw like most works of art is subjective to the perception of its viewer or audience. Some may find it a stroke of genius that embodies the ugly psyche of the human mind; others will declare it a façade. When you lift the veil on the mania and manufactured lifestyle that the characters lead, all that’s left is circles in the sand… but then again, maybe that was Gilroy’s point.
Being dubbed “The scariest movie in years” was always going to be a tough statement to stand by. The bar has already been set pretty high in the horror scene and if, like me, you live and breathe the genre, then you’re going to want them to stand by such bold convictions.
So, with the gauntlet thrust down, I stared down the barrel of torment, chest exposed, ready to receive the thrills that I had so been longing to receive in the class that I’ve come to love so dearly.
Whilst Hereditary didn’t tweak the amygdala to produce deep and charting scares, it did throw me into a river of disturbance and terror that was positively haunting.
One might find the pace of the film a little slow but the current is a steady one, offering enough pain and suffering to propel you on the perilous journey that the family face, which has a lot to do with the stellar performances on show.
Toni Collette is a huge standout and somehow oozes every ounce of crazed anarchy, agony, and deterioration as she struggles to come to face up to the impact that her mother’s death has had on her and her family.
Director Ari Aster in his directorial feature debut carves our an intricate and detailed portrait of grief and the extent one goes to in order to reconcile with those feelings that takes you places you may not ordinarily be willing to go to, and plays with the vulnerablity that you may encounter with each action you take leading to drastic consequences.
Supporting Toni in her delivery of Annie Graham is Gabriel Byrne as her husband Steve, who has the tough job of bringing a delighting with enough subtly, so that he can allow other key players to shine, namely the two children Charlie (Milly Shapiro who draws out an incredibly haunting character) and Steve (Alex Wolff who also deserves the accolades for his character arc).
Hereditary has been likened to the old school horror movies that were being produced in the 70’s such as The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby and whilst it does appear that we’re about to go through a reawakening of this era (especially if the new Suspiria trailer is anything to go by), I struggle to find this movie matching the chilling feeling that you got from watching those movies from that time.
Instead we’re faced with an incredibly detailed and evocative feature that takes the audience on a trouble and unsettling journey.
Hardcore horror fans will be left wanting, but those who like to have the brain stimulated by smart and disturbing terror can expect a movie to resonate and tingle the senses.
Like me, you may have believed that The Sixth Sense was M. Night Shyamalan’s directorial debut, such was the impact that movie had on his career and the horror genre.
Before this movie awakened our senses and Shyamalan became known as the director with the twist endings, he would take the helm with two other features, Praying with Anger, and Wide Awake.
The former would see Shyamalan write, direct, produce, and star (a sign of things to come) in a self-reflective story about an Indian American, who was raised in the States who goes to India to study, and a conflict of Western and Native culture collide.
Clearly, there is a lot of the director’s love and labour thrown into this project as he covers every aspect of the production process.
Six years later (1998) Shyamalan would venture into his sophomore feature with Wide Awake, a comedy drama starring Denis Leary, Dana Delany, and Rosie O’Donnell.
Once more faith, and religion (a reoccurring them in Shyamalan’s work) would play a part in this story, as a 10-year-old searches for answers around life and death.
Another signature that would return for the third movie and the film that would put Shyamalan’s name on the map would be to tell the story through the eyes of a young boy, capturing the essence of innocence in a ‘brave new world’.
The Sixth Sense
The blessing and the curse
The film was nominated for six Academy Awards and thrust Shyamalan into the spotlight.
The Sixth Sense has been referenced and parodied on numerous occasions, and cemented itself firmly into pop culture.
Starring Bruce Willis, Toni Collette, and career defining performance from Hayley Joel Osmont.
Despite all the accolades thrust toward the movie, because of its ‘surprise ending’, it falls into the trap of lost magic, once the reveal is apparent.
People may have been keen to re-watch and scrutinise every aspect for the clues set up along the way, but essentially, you could never capture THAT moment again with repeat viewing.
It’s a strong contender in Shyamalan’s canon of work, but arguably not his finest hour for this writer.
Personally, I don’t feel he has managed to top his follow-up movie…
The elevation of success continues
Bruce Willis would once again work alongside Shyamalan following the success of The Sixth Sense.
This time Samuel Jackson and Robin Wright, rounding out a stellar cast that would accompany him.
Shyamalan’s ode to the comic book genre has been labelled as one of the best superhero movies of all time and you can clearly see the director’s love for the subject.
Unbreakable is a wonderful shot and beautifully told story that pits Willis’ David Dunn, a man who discovers that he is as the title suggests, unbreakable when he is the lone survivor of a train crash.
Dunn pits his strength and wits against Jackson’s Elijah, his polar opposite in that his body is prone to fracturing easily and in my mind, one of the best things about the film is the way Shyamalan’s narrative leads you to believe and identify with the reasons that Elijah resorts to villainous behaviour, a topic that many have tried but failed to convey.
Shyalaman’s third success would come in the form of…
The last hurrah?
Signs would complete Shyalaman’s hat trick of successes before his fall from grace.
Once more faith is put under scrutiny when Gibson’s Father Graham Hess is struggling to identify with his religion after the loss of his wife.
It’s his acceptance of that grief that shoulders him and ultimately his family through an alien invasion that threatens their way of life.
With each movie Shyamalan has released his formula had been pretty consistent, but audiences were starting to wisen up to his craft.
His next feature would break the camels back and see a downward trend in Shyamalan’s fortunes.
The one trick ponyrevealed
I’m gonna ask a question here relating to The Village, which in my opinion has received unfair criticism towards it.
If Shyamalan had not been the director, would we (the audience) have been so scornful?
Too many people had become familiar with the directors trick of adding a surprise ending that when said trick arrived in The Village, there was a sense of being let down.
“Oh, is that it? WTF!!”
However, if you take Shyamalan out of the equation and simply look at the movie on its own merit, it’s actually a lot stronger than our immediate reactions warranted.
Joaquin Phoenix returns as Shyamalan’s latest muse, this time portraying Lucius one of the next generation of a secluded villagers that we’re led to believe darkens back to days of yore, such is the existence that the inhabitants lead.
Believing that their secret is set to be exposed, the Elders are rescued by a stroke of luck when a blind girl, Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) ventures out into the outside world to retrieve some much needed medicine.
As I said, I liked this movie. Agreed not Shyalaman’s finest hour but it’s a solid movie.
Any fans of the directors work that found themselves sitting on the fence of uncertainty about Shyalaman’s directing prowess, would find their confidence drift further with his follow up film…
Lady In The Water
The fall from grace
There’s no doubt in my mind that Shyalaman is a smart man.
His intelligence brims to the surface of all of his movies.
But like another smart man once said, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’
And with his recent run of successful movie hits, one can’t help but thing that Lady In The Water is an example of how the directors vision had left his vision firmly in the clouds.
You have to commend him for the effort portrayed in infusing a fantastical world based in reality, but Shyalaman is so absorbed in his own creation and egotistical views that he fails to see the bigger picture, and because of this, he loses his audience in a convoluted mess of a fairy tale.
What makes it worse, is the now notorious self-casting of the writer come to save us all.
It feels so egotistical that and the delusion is worrying sign for a director/writer who had shown so much promise.
And as if he were hell-bent on destroying his career, Shyalaman decides to kill off a character within the plot who just so happens to be a movie critic.
If Lady In The Water has one saving grace, it’s that Giamatti’s performance keeps the narrative bopping above the surface, but not even the addition of a good cast in support, notably Bryce Dallas Howard as the nymph, Story, and Jeffrey Wright as Mr Dury can help save this film from drowning in a pool of its own vomit.
So, where to from here?
His first box office disappointment and Shyalaman chooses to push on regardless with…
The film that limped across the line.
With a point to prove, Shyalaman would turn his attention next to a B-Movie horror with smarts.
But The Happening was hardly a victory.
Starring Mark Wahlberg, who himself criticised the film and Zooey Deschanel, an actress who usually sets the screen alight with her strong performances.
With a promising start, The Happening does hold promise, but the audience once again finds themselves lost in the lack of plot structure and smothered by the overbearing message on environmentalism.
By now, we’ve reached the mid-way point of Shyalaman’s career thus far and the feeling I get as I survey his filmography is that he’s a man with grand visions and ideas, but he’s not necessarily going to execute them effectively.
Case in point…
The Last Airbender
Dead on arrival
Based on the successful kids tv series on Nickelodeon, The Last Airbender should have been a success given its strong following, and this could be in part why it received a fairly strong opening weekend at the Box Office.
But the first movie that Shyalaman would attempt from a story that wasn’t his own would prove to be another failure for the director.
This film to me feels like a move from a guy who is lost in the world and with no sense of direction or where he is going.
Which is understandable considering his recent run of poor performances.
With a central character who displays no personality whatsoever and a script that clearly doesn’t connect with the writers ethos, The Last Airbender is a film that doesn’t even register on the Richter scale and doesn’t stir any emotion at all.
This is Shyalaman’s lowest point in his career.
When you reach rock bottom there’s only up though, right? Right?
An interesting response from Shyalaman during this time was to put on his producer hat and support another movie released in 2010 called Devil.
This film was actually quite good and showed promise, but importantly saw a success under Shyalaman’s name but this time not as a director.
That particular journey had still needed to right itself and was by far from finding solid ground.
Instead we’re treated to…
This movie was essentially a passion project of Will Smiths.
Based on an idea that he developed, After Earth would also star Smith’s son Jayden and produced by Smith himself alongside his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith and Shyalaman.
The latter of whom feels like is still in self destructive mode, clambering up the sides of the hole of failure, which he pretty much dig himself.
As if he didn’t learn his last lesson, Shyalaman plummets into another disappointing film by tackling a story that is not his own.
Ironically, the director had lost faith in himself. Ironic in that faith is the very subject that fascinates this director when approaching storytelling.
Will Smith would describe After Earth as his most painful failure and there’s a reason that most people have tried to bury this movie from their minds, which falls just short of being the worst post apocalyptic sci-fi film of all-time.
No one can take Battlefield Earth off that mantle.
The much needed reprieve
Although his next move saw Shyalaman only serve as director for the pilot and serve as Executive Producer, the choice was an important step in his career.
By turning his attention to a different medium, (a tv series), Shyalaman would be able to realign himself once more.
Take stock and arguably bring him back into contention as an auteur once more.
This could very well be the turning point that Shyalaman was searching for in his climb back into the realms of success again.
On face value it struck me as just another found footage horror, with the protagonists played by sibling kids, Becca and and Tyler (Olivia De Jonge and Ed Oxenbould who both deserve high recognition for their performances in this) who go to stay with Nana and Pop-Pop, grandparents they’ve never seen before, which automatically sent signals off for me.
The plot line is a little clumsy in places as Shyamalan stumbles his way through telling a story on new-found confidence, albeit a little shakily.
There is another strength in the tale though to allow Shyalaman to stride forward in his tale, as the right ingredients are in place to propel the story forward with fear and trepidation combined with a genuine care factor for the central characters involved.
My only niggle was the slight arrogance from Shyalaman from the role of Becca.
She speaks intelligently enough but it just dips slightly into the level of annoyance and too many scars are on display still from Shyalaman’s previous outings.
This aside, it plays along nicely enough with a reward that doesn’t feel forced.
It’s a strong sign of things to come.
The return to form?
By the time I came around to watching this the word was already out and the spoilers had hit the net.
The audience reaction was… divided and yet I intended to come into this film with an open mind.
The pace and build up was faultless and thrust the viewer headlong into the ordeal that the 3 kidnapped girls face.
James McAvoy is simply outstanding displaying so many diverse personalities, although we only ever see 8 of the 24 in the film.
Perhaps because this would have been too confusing and the audience would have been lost.
Maybe Shyalaman has learnt his lesson after all?
Also making an impact on the screen in films such as Morgan and The Witch is Anya Taylor-Joy who delivers another defining turn as one of the kidnapped girls, Cassie, who has her own skeleton in her closet which becomes integral to the closing scenes of the movie.
There are some moments that he action is a little scattered in places but overall Shyamalan delivers a solid movie with the promise of an Unbreakable / Split crossover in the near future.
This news has got fans salivating at this prospect but also has film lovers in a frothing frenzy of anger at the idea of another movie being released by the director.
Has Shyamalan burnt too many bridges in his audience trust?
Is he bouncing back from redemption? And does have what it takes to another another successful feature?
Love him or hate him, I’ve come to admire his appetite to keep challenging himself and delivering compelling stories.
Each story he produces takes him in a different direction and he seems fearless to take on his visions.
Yes he may not land with every punch, but there’s not many other directors out there in the mainstream that continue to offer something new to the scene and to produce conversation with every project that he overseas.
For good or Ill, I’m glad to see someone like Shyamalan still producing in the film industry.
And I’ll have to hang my hat on that unpopular statement.