Thursday, 15 November 2012

John Hillcoat - Life through his Lens

OK the disclaimers first! Although a prolific Director of video shorts and two feature films, I only jumped on the bandwagon in 2005 when John Hillcoat released his third feature "The Proposition". It's such an astonishing film as you'll read below.

I was Immediately struck by the vast openness of "The Proposition", that runs at it's own pace and is a real visual marvel. Eagerly awaiting his next release and four years in the making came, "The Road". I was lucky enough to see this on the big screen, and the vast openness (again) of his films was brilliantly depicted on the larger screen. One scene in particular resonates with me for deeply personal reasons and while it divides opinion dramatically from a triumphant epic to "too depressing", the film's heart and soul really touched me. I'm not ashamed to admit that I waited far longer than usual before leaving the cinema after seeing "The Road" and I wasn't the only one.

"Lawless" followed in 2012 and four years later "Triple 9" and here is my John Hillcoat blog now fully updated. But a final, honest disclaimer: I still haven't been able to track down a copy of his 1996 film "To Have and to Hold". I could fudge it and copy and paste other reviews under the cover of my own, but I haven't and I won't. So if there's anyone out there in blog land who has a copy I could borrow, I would be most appreciative.


Working in collaboration with Nick Cave on five of his feature films, John has also collaborated twice with Director of Photography Benoit Delhomme, Guy Pearce has so far appeared in three Hillcoat films and excelling every time. Noah Taylor has collaborated on two films.

With a host of acting talent: Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson, Danny Huston, John Hurt, Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Kate Winslet and Casy Affleck and backed by superb original screenplays and a Director's eye for a well told, well paced story, I hope you enjoy the following appreciation of a wonderful storyteller.

As with all of my film blog's it is not my intention to fill these appraisals with endless facts, trivia or more importantly, spoilers. I hope to give a flavour of the films, my personal reactions to them and what makes them truly stand out. Written sincerely from a fan's perspective. Four very unique films for your enjoyment.

Ghosts of the Civil Dead (1988)

"Welcome to Central Industrial. We are the Future"

Based in part on the book "In the Belly of The Beast" by Jack Henry Abbott and written by five screenwriters including both the Director John Hillcoat and long time friend Nick Cave, this debut cinematic feature from Hillcoat is a tough watch at times as an all consuming air of violence and intensity fills the screen. It paints a graphic account of the future, a privatised prison system of dehumanised prisoners with no hope and ironically, no future. Following very basic, dated and simple credits and a wide shot of a desolate and bleak Australian outback, a rolling type across the screen confirms the back story. We are in Central Industrial Prison, a maximum security prison for high risk dangerous offenders. After continuing violence, the prison was placed on constant lockdown on October 25th, and the film builds to this date and the circumstances surrounding it.

The prison itself is quickly described, from the "General Area" to "Administrative Segregation" to "Solitary Confinement" and the early part of the film has a documentary style feel to it. The bland, soulless nature of the inside of the prison was also reminiscent of many scenes from George Lucas' first film THX 1138. The numerous prisoners are introduced, each with a typed scroll of their name and prison number underneath, and a near constant narration from first the prisoners themselves, then their various prison guards.

Against a backdrop of constant heavy drug use, we flit between cells and the monotonous life inside the prison, of sex, porn and television. Again with a documentary feel, however the tension, anxiety and malaise within the prison is growing. As is the violence and the accompanying narration, as each unseen inmate/warder describe vividly what prison life means to them.

Each major scene is split by either a wide shot of the perimeter just outside the prison, or by a rolling type, dated, and descriptive of that day's events, which becomes more evident and more affecting as the film progresses.

This first John Hillcoat film is neither a classic, nor one for the feint of heart. Throughout the 93 minute running time the violence is often just off camera, occasionally fully and very graphically in front of, but the aftermath of the violence is very much on display. The disintegration of the prisoners, aptly demonstrated by David Field as "Wenzil" is distressing, as is the cameo of Nick Cave as "Maynard". It's meant to be. It's an indictment of the prison system, of the inhumane ways that many "correctional facilities" are run. It shows the human spirit and soul being completely taken away, and this from some of the most violent prisoners with the least of all to lose.

The Proposition (2005)

"Australia - What fresh hell is this?"

With simple opening credits interspersed with Black and White pictures of Australia of the 1880's and concentrating on the plight of the native aborigines, we break from the quiet opening and are immediately transported into a violent and bloody shootout and the introduction to three of our main characters, "Charlie Burns", his brother "Mike Burns" and Police Captain "Morris Stanley". The Burns brothers are wanted for an unseen gruesome killing and rape and Captain Stanley has a proposition for Charlie - Kill his older brother Arthur and he and his younger brother Mike will be pardoned.

With at times minimal dialogue, but a tremendous and tight screenplay by Nick Cave, Nick also provides another delight in this film, the haunting and beautiful soundtrack with violinist Warren Ellis. This is also at times minimalist, but to great effect and accompanies the film perfectly. As does a whispering, barely audible narration. A special mention is also due to Director of Photography Benoit Delhomme, as with John Hillcoat's direction, the Australian outback is perfectly shot. Lingering shots of the wide open, dirty and dusty outback set the tone, as does the frequent use of long distance shots of a sun setting on a barren, remote part of a barely inhabited world. There are numerous iconic shots of brilliantly framed setting sun's, of "Arthur Burns" sitting atop his mountain retreat and especially of brothers Arthur and Charlie sitting on the same mountain peak, with a setting sun between them.

Charlie Burns 
(Guy Pearce) Brilliant as the quiet, melancholic and thoughtful Burns Brother. Minimal dialogue yet with the camera constantly focussing on Charlie, this is a nuanced and still performance from Pearce. The centre and heart of the film with all the ensuing madness surrounding him.
Arthur Burns 
(Danny Huston) The oldest of the Burns Brothers and the acting familial Patriarch. A roaring performance of violence and intensity and near career best from Huston despite being absent from the film until well into Act Two. A brilliant performance.
Mike Burns 
(Richard Wilson) Imprisoned and held as bait for his older Brothers, an adept performance from Wilson as the backward and scared Brother.

In pursuit of the Burns Brothers, and heading up the supporting roles is a brilliant portrayal from Ray Winstone as "Captain Stanley". Ray Winstone brings this archetypal Englishman to life with yet another captivating performance. Eloquent and forceful, yet brooding with a simmering nervousness, we follow his descent as he disintegrates before our eyes. It's a powerful performance and yet mainly with his eyes, as although eloquent he seems unable to fix his stare to anyone except his wife. His eyes are forever darting left and right, anywhere but to the person speaking. Deeply in love with his wife "Martha Stanley" (Emily Watson), they seem determined to live a very English life amid the barren emptiness that surrounds them. It's interesting to note throughout the film how the colour and texture changes from scene to scene and it's especially evident when surrounding Captain Stanley and Martha. From the yellow stained and saturated colour of the Australian outback and it's settlers, to that of full bright colours shown when with Captain Stanley, or at his home.

All main characters are richly detailed and layered with brilliant portrayals notably "Jellon Lamb" (John Hurt) who in a stunning cameo appearance stands out. Just two scenes and minor screen time but a joy, especially the bar room discussion with Charlie Burns and their abstract discussion on Charles Darwin and the Origin of the Species. A telling, well played scene. "Brian O'Leary" sees Noah Taylor make the first of his two cameo appearances for the Director in his films and "Jacko" is brilliantly played by David Gulpili, however the stand out cameo supporting role falls to David Wenham as "Eden Fletcher".

A portrayal of late nineteenth century Australia and it's appalling treatment of the indigenous tribes of aborigines it most certainly is. But deeper than that, a film of loyalty, friendship and family. There are also many juxtapositions throughout the film that are key, showing a light and dark of the situation, of the human condition even, that pervaded at the time. Many beautifully shot sunrises against the daily setting sun and the countdown to Mike's execution. Captain Stanley's twice quoted "I will civilise this land", cut directly against the poor treatment of a juvenile Mike in prison is a stark juxtaposition, as is the poignant split scene of a singing gang member miles away and oblivious to the flogging being meted out to Mike. There's an overt sense of racism throughout the film, yet an Aborigine works under the command of Captain Stanley and his police. Similarly, another Aborigine works at the Captain's plush home, which is set against the poor conditions within the town. A killing spree by the Police is juxtaposed with a drunken rendition of "Rule Britannia". All these juxtapositions and many more are soaked throughout the film, as is the constant question, the proposition, at the beginning of the film - Will you kill your own brother to save the life of another brother? To describe the film as slow and melancholic (at times) would seem to be a criticism, but it isn't. It fits the film and the story it tells perfectly. The violence is fleeting and you often only see the aftermath of the violence without the graphic portrayal, one scene is the exception to this and is heartbreakingly brutal. A wonderful film, and the reason why I immediately became a John Hillcoat fan, eagerly awaiting the Director's next release.

The Road (2009)

"The clock's stopped at 1:17"

Based on the world renowned novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy and with a screenplay from Joe Penhall, this was the first Hillcoat film not penned either by himself or Nick Cave. John Hillcoat also followed up one classic film with another and this audience splitting classic. Too maudlin for some, downright depressing for others, or an uplifting and heart warming tale of the human spirit? Pick your poison! With a cast of only 16 credited roles and a further 10 uncredited roles, this near two hour film follows the journey of one man and his son across a post apocalypse United States of America.

From a richly coloured beginning of an idyllic life, we are immediately transported to a monochrome, desaturated world of despair and destruction. With a melancholic narration from "Man" (Viggo Mortensen) it's clearly established the earth is dying, and quickly, and with a continuing narration we see and hear the destruction unfold as earthquakes shake the earth, amid thunder claps and lightening strikes. Sheltering with his "Boy" (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and sleeping rough, the brightly coloured beginning has been completely taken over by a dank, dark and dirty environment. Existing only on scraps of food, both Man and Boy push a shopping trolley full of their remaining deeply personal belongings through a bleak, wide open and seemingly destroyed world.

The Director immediately deserves special praise for bringing both the book and the dying earth to the screen so magnificently. In fact, with so few characters in the film, this becomes another character in itself. De-forested woods, trees dying, vacant streets filled with destruction, it is a true marvel and an incredible feat of achievement from both John Hillcoat and his Director of Photography, Javier Aguirresarobe. Following the trek south to the coast where they hope they will find solace, escape and redemption, Man and Boy are often framed against town after town of bleak nothingness, desolate and empty spaces. There was very little if any CGI used throughout, enhancing the credit due to both Director and Director of Photography.

Throughout the film it's also interesting to note how often a shot is used of only the hands and feet, or an extreme close up of the face, as if to reinforce the decay that surrounds them. One particular early scene encapsulates this, as with a reverse zoom shot the Director frames just the boy clutching his teddy bear, as he realises there are several pairs of feet dangling above him. Not in a gratuitous way, more matter of fact, with the Man later commenting on a similar scenario "that's nothing you haven't seen before". One other interesting feature to note is again the juxtaposition between a vibrant colour (particularly red) and the grey, desaturated world they now live in. The red is often shown in a burning candle flame or raging fires and equally so when we often flashback to the past. Depending on the mood of the Man, the flashback is either in full colour (joyous mood) to grey and dark to match his present day mood. These flashbacks are often brief and while the man is sleeping/dreaming and is our main introduction to "Woman" (Charlize Theron).

With a small supporting and cameo cast "Old Man" (Robert Duvall), and "Veteran" (Guy Pearce) excellently standing out, the two central characters of Man and Boy are the film's heartbeat. Kodi Smit-McPhee as Boy almost eclipses his veteran acting partner. It's a still performance, deliberately and purposely so, as is the way he grows into the second and third acts to become the film's moral centre. He was rightly lauded for his performance, which was so mature for an actor so young. His performance at times is heart breaking. Viggo Mortensen (another of my collection of favourite actors) is sublime here. He injects so much love and a burning protection for his son, of tremendous pride, yet it's the simple touches and glances that seal the performance. With so many close ups of Mortensen in particular, he has to be on top of his game. He is, and his portrayal is simply stunning.

Backed by a beautiful musical score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, this film moves me every time. It plays with the emotions to dramatic effect, with juxtapositions (again) between love and despair, hope and hopelessness, good versus evil "you have to keep carrying the fire" to the bleakness of the difference between life and death. It's a truly wonderful film, a well adapted story and a damn good reason to keep those you love close to you.

Lawless (2012)

"It is not the violence that sets men apart. It is the distance he is prepared to go".

Based on the book "The wettest county in the world" by Matt Bondurant, and set against a highly recommended soundtrack and original music from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, this is John Hillcoat's gangster film, with hints of noir too. Nick Cave again deserves credit for both the screenplay and the soundtrack collaboration with Warren Ellis. Mainly incorporating tracks from The Bootleggers there are also original pieces from Cave and Ellis and "Midnight Run" from Willie Nelson.

In 1930's USA, with prohibition in force we follow the bloody and violent exploits of three brothers determined to make their mark, regardless of law enforcement and their burgeoning moonshine business. The film is mainly set in the small town of Franklin/Franklin County, in which the brothers own and control their territory. Although regular tips/bribes/moonshine is given to the local authorities, it's clear early on in the piece that the brothers need to defend their illegal business and defend it they do, often with bloody and graphic violence. Combined with the Director's use of wide shots (with customary brilliance) depicting the wide open rural town and landscape (returning Director of Photography Benoit Delhomme also deserves special praise) with a distinctive yet sometimes unintelligible "drawl" accent and some stunning performances, the scene is set for yet another brilliant John Hillcoat movie.

With an occasional narration from "Jack Bondurant" (Shia LaBeouf) we are introduced to his older brothers "Forrest Bondurant" (Tom Hardy) and "Howard Bondurant" (Jason Clarke). All three brothers are fiercely defensive of their business and each other and each play a strong narrative strand in the film, but none more so than Tom Hardy as Forrest. Hardy's performance is frighteningly good here, a power house performance of brooding intensity which simmers just beneath the surface, the family patriarch in every way. He dominates when on screen, often shot with the focus on his eyes, though often obscured by his hat and with little dialogue, it's yet another incredible portrayal from Hardy. Shia LaBeouf grows purposely in the role of Jack. Initially he appears to be a hero worshipper, younger than his dominating older brothers, he appears impressionable and rash, though as both the film and his character develops, so does LaBeouf's performance, especially when in league with best friend "Cricket Pate" (a brilliant supporting role from Dane Dehaan).

Supporting roles abound, from Jessica Chastain's brilliant portrayal as "Maggie Beauford" to the other main female lead role of "Bertha Minnix" (Mia Wasikowska), to a returning Noah Taylor in a cameo role as "Gummy Walsh". Special mention for a criminally short performance from Gary Oldman as "Floyd Banner", though his introduction in a hail of bullets from a tommy gun and a smile and a wink as he drives away riding shotgun is a gem! It falls to Guy Pearce as "Charlie Rakes" to enforce the law as a Special Deputy from Chicago. Aloof and with an accent all his own, it's a deliberate and measured performance from Pearce in his third collaboration with Director Hillcoat. In control, on a mission even, he is the polar opposite of the localised sheriffs and the brothers even down to his deliberate hairstyle, sense of dress and style, and especially his shiny white, almost ethereal facial complexion compared to the rough and ready brothers he is trying to bring down. It's another superb performance from Pearce.

One minor gripe would be the elongated ending but that wouldn't do justice to this film as with time, the film will grow in the same way as "The Proposition" did and into a timeless classic. Another Hillcoat film that seems to run at it's own pace, it never feels long (just under two hours) and could have even explored Gary Oldman's character at more length, but that's probably just the Gary Oldman fan in me speaking! One particular scene to whet your appetite deserves special mention. Mid way through comes a stylised scene, colourful and amid falling snow and a crashing plot twist. Maybe two minutes in length, it's shot and lit brilliantly and is quite literally a stand out scene from the film in every way. Combined with the sublime soundtrack and expertise from a Director and his Director of Photography it sets up the final hour of this fantastic film.

Triple 9 (2016)

"Out here, there is no good and there is no bad. To survive out here, you've got to out monster the monster. Can you do that?"

Triple 9 left me cold despite following in a similar vein from Hillcoat's previous film Lawless. Whereas Lawless is set in a remote American town in the 1930's, here present day Atlanta is the setting. Whereas Lawless has an engaging and emotional script that seeps into the film, Triple 9 struggles with a straight ahead narrative that fails to engage and has left me disappointed, even through repeat viewings. Where both films merge is the stellar cast present on both, with roles ably filled here via Woody Harrelson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Kate Winslet and undoubted star performer here, Casey Affleck. Affleck portrays straight shooting Police Detective "Chris Allen" particularly well and is the film's only real honest to goodness character for he is surrounded by a cast of duplicitous characters aptly summarised by the tag line above. Attributed to Chris Allen's uncle "Jeffrey Allen" (Woody Harrelson), there is no good or bad here as the lines blur between the two, with corrupt policemen set against neighbourhood gangsters as well as Russian Jewish Mobsters headed, in her husband's absence, by "Irina Vlaslov" (Kate Winslet). From the first of the film's several set pieces the character's duplicity is cast with corrupt Policemen "Franco Rodriguez" (Clifton Collins) and "Marcus Belmont" (Anthony Mackie) in league with career criminals "Michael Atwood" (Chiwetel Etiofor), "Russell Welch" (Norman Reedus) and younger brother "Gabe Welch" (Aaron Paul). Tasked with stealing a safety deposit box on behalf of the Russian mobsters, this is achieved in the opening minutes of the film but with dire consequences that pervades the rest of the narrative. 

Based on a screenplay by Matt Cook there are several set pieces that pay off well but aside from these the dialogue and general interaction between the characters never convinces and I was often bored and simply awaiting the next explosive piece of action. Aside from Casey Affleck's performance, the majority of the remaining performances just grate on me as, whilst their various nuances are deliberate, they simply add very little to the overall film. Woody Harrelson's Jeffery Allen character is past the point of legality for a policeman but his grumbling, rumbling tone lost me, as did Winslet's appalling Russian accent! The script may have been better served with more screen time for the Welch brothers, but the twists were so obviously ahead that I failed to root or believe in any of the characters and was non-plussed and simply awaiting the drama to unfold. Even with repeated viewings this film has left me cold and unsympathetic to the characters, even annoyed by some, and Triple 9 remains my least favourite film directed by Hillcoat.

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