The Wild One (Benedek, 1953) and The Whistleblower (Kondracki, 2010)

Catching up on a classic – one of the iconic roles is Brando’s Johnny Strabler, leader of the BRMC (bonus points if you know the acronym) and deliverer of the unforgettable response to “What are you rebelling against?”  His line: “What’ve you got?”

Not much outstanding plot to report.  Strabler rides into a small town with his gang.  He’s immediately taken by the daughter of the local sheriff, Kathie (Mary Murphy).  The sheriff, Harry (Robert Keith), is easily intimidated, and things soon get out of hands, leading to a vigilante mob, with Johnny as the target.

Harmless by todays standards, and with a female lead who is unforgivably underdeveloped, powerless, and all the wrong stereotypes of “damsel in distress,” The Wild One still manages to succeed on multiple levels.  For one, alongside a few other films, it basically created Brando.  His soft, slow-burning anger, his lackadaisical approach to human interaction, and his too-cool for school manner anticipate the perhaps more iconic James Dean role in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause.

I think what’s most interesting about The Wild One is how it also looks forward to edgier, more successful rebellion character pieces.  A great comparison, and a great film, is Martin Ritt’s 1963 film Hud, with Paul Newman at the helm.  As the outdated Production Code started to unravel in the 1960s thanks to people like Ritt, Kazan, Hitchcock, and eventually Nichols and Penn, more sex and outward violence appeared on-screen.  But more importantly, the psychology of characters, which took an infantile dive during much of the 1950s as noir dwindled and the post-war effect became less malaise than escapism, took a turn towards the complex.

One can see The Wild One wanting to be the type of film that Hud, or say other Nicholas Ray films of the time (1954’s Johnny Guitar) are, but it’s limited script and direction falter in that regard.  Director Benedek does some nice visual things, but his shot selection is choppy and, while he does give Brando room to breathe, he’s much more interested in the “bad-ass-ness” of the BRMC than he is of the story of a crumbling macho exterior.

Regardless, there are great moments in here, Brando lines aside.  A motorcycle ride between Johnny and Kathie featuring mostly four shots: close-up on each of them, wide shot as the camera track backwards, and a low angle looking up at the moon peeking through the trees (ala Rashomon?) is romantic, visually stupendous (yes, stupendous), and encapsulates accurately the rage that is now, momentarily lost and replaced with a fantastical sense of movement and escape.  Lose that shot of the moon and much of that’s gone – smart directorial decision.

The fact that in the end, much of the townspeople are guiltier than any real crime, and that it is only their violence that actually appears onscreen is also nicely done.

I’m the last to ever pine for a remake.  And I’m definitely (definitely!) not doing that here.  But…were The Wild One to be updated (and it’s formula definitely has been) there’s much that could be done with the rapid evolution of Brando’s sensitive biker.  It’s kind of like a reverse Straw Dogs.

 

The Whistleblower (from my review on soundonsight.org):

A straightforward thriller that is, at times, and not to its detriment, more Hostel than it is Alan Pakula-style paranoia piece, The Whistleblower effectively keeps its politics in the murky background. As opposed to recent political thrillers like Fair Game, Larysa Kondracki’s film instead chooses a structure that is more harrowing and personal, than one rooted in espionage and cross-continental criminal affairs.

Rachel Weisz is Kathryn Bolkovac, a mid-western cop who takes a security post in Bosnia in order to make enough money to move near her daughter and estranged husband.  Bolkovac quickly ascends the ladder once her moral code is on full display for her superior Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave).  In the position to make a real change in the region, Bolkovac quickly uncovers a human-trafficking ring involving domestic troops, UN soldiers and other politicos.  With the assistance of Internal Affairs operative Peter Ward (David Strathairn) she sets out amidst a dangerous, male-dominated world to expose the truth and free innocent girls being sold as sex slaves.

Director Kondracki keeps the pace fast and the content appropriately unsettling for her debut feature-film.   Tackling eye-opening and necessary subject matter, The Whistleblower is not a film to shy away from violence and, though such a gruesome approach seems realistic, it does tire out towards the end, where montages of hysteria and brutality fail to add to any greater understanding or revelation.

A too-rapid, and poorly constructed first act, the purpose of which seems to be to speed through back-story to get to the meat of the film, is luckily outshone by the gripping second and third acts, in which Bolkovac’s humanity, her staunch maternal disposition and her sense of ethics make her both a compelling character and a thorn in the side of the many involved in cover-ups.

Weisz turns in an expert performance, and the supporting cast, featuring David Hewlett (Cube, Splice) and Nikolaj Lie Kaas (Brothers, Angels and Demons) alongside Redgrave and Strathairn, is excellent.

Some of the strongest scenes in The Whistleblower – a raid on a suspected trafficking locale, a mother’s grief at her daughter’s disappearance – are handled suspensefully and expertly, marked by Kondracki’s handheld, rapidly cutting camera, grim cinematography from Kieran McGuigan, and the low, dramatic score from Mychael Danna.

While Strathairn’s Ward is underdeveloped and given a tacked on pseudo-twist at the end, his presence in the narrative, along with an appearance from UN Operations Manager Bill Hynes (Liam Cunningham), points to the underlying cause for the problem and posits that the root of the evil is not only the men on the ground, but also those in positions higher-up.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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