I’m still trying to cram multiple movies in each post. As with the Rene Clement directorial linkage in the last one, this post again finds two films with similarities – the striking resemblance of Daniel Day-Lewis and Jonah Hill. Uncanny.
In the Name of the Father isn’t Jim Sheridan or Daniel Day-Lewis’ best film. It’s not even their best collaboration. But it is a strong IRA-themed, prison/courtroom drama. Day-Lewis’ turn as wrongly imprisoned and suspected bomber Gerry Conlon, alongside the always-enjoyable to watch Pete Postlewaithe as his father Giuseppe, is electric.
In the spirit of keeping on my own toes as well as keeping you on yours, I’ve decided to select a scene at random from the film and see how it stands up to shot-by-shot analysis. Here’s what I came to: a short scene where Gerry returns to the main prison floor alongside Joe McAndrew (Don Baker). The first shot here is a pan and tilt with a random prisoner, up to Joe and Gerry entering in a low-angle wide-shot:
Sheridan cuts in:
And there follows a series of consecutive wide-shots where the other prisoners cheer for Gerry:
And Gerry (fist raised, left-center frame) responds:
Sheridan’s camera cuts to one of Gerry’s prison friends as he calls out to Gerry:
The pan with Gerry (left-center frame, walking right) continues, now revealing a new figure in the foreground, watching:
Sheridan cuts up, from inside the cell, revealing Giuseppe there as well:
Back to the low angle, as the guy – an enemy of both Gerry and Joe – turns into focus:
And makes eye contact with the prison guard above:
Okay then. Because this was a randomly chosen scene it’s not necessarily the most dynamic in the film, but it’s still well executed. For one, that opening shot, where the prisoner walks in and we pan/tilt up to Gerry and Joe, is the same as the low angle with their enemy in the foreground (two above).
On one hand, that frames the shot as a sort of POV, but not a true POV (because it includes the person looking – a physical impossibility to look at yourself outside of your body).
Still, it retains the idea of a POV shot, and makes the entire sequence that precedes the reveal of the enemy, observatory and all the more tense in hindsight. These guys are being watched the entire time. This is one thing that really interests me in filmmaking. I talk about the idea of the POV a lot because it can instantly change the dynamics of a scene. But it’s more than the POV – it’s the idea that any one shot (in this case, the reveal of the enemy) can alter the meaning of a scene entirely. What starts as celebratory ends in menace. What begins as freedom ends in impending danger. Keeping the camera low, forcing us to look up at Gerry and Joe, feels at first like a simply inflected angle – it gives them power, makes them transcendent in the frame. But when that angle is given (relative) ownership, that idea of low-angle-power is also undercut. It’s a few quick tonal switcheroos in a short time span.
There’s also something to be said about ending a scene on someone other than the main characters. In this case, we end on the prison guard rather than Gerry, Joe, Giuseppe, or even their enemy. This is a small-ish form of anti-closure. If we end in Gerry and Giuseppe’s cell there’s a feeling of comfort and safety. We’re with the protagonists. In the same space as them. But by keeping away, by ending on an outside force, outside of their cell, we’re never granted that comfort we unconsciously crave. It’s like the ending to Welles’ Touch of Evil, one of my favorite films. When we walk away with two minor characters it’s haunting, in part because of the actions that have just preceded their conversation, but also because we aren’t in the safety, knowing arms of those we’ve most been with throughout the picture.
Cyrus is a small film in every meaning of the word outside of star power (which it has in spades – Jonah Hill, John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener). It features very few, unremarkable locations. The action is marked by everyday, low-key interactions. The pacing is neither particularly slow nor particularly fast. The resolution doesn’t come whirling in – it settles easily.
Here’s a fun fact. The German translation of the film title is “My Girlfriend, Her Son, and I.” I guess Cyrus isn’t a popular Germanic name.
Jonah Hill is Cyrus. He’s a bit too old to be so close to his mother, Molly (Tomei). So when a new, likable man John (Reilly) comes into her life he has a hard time letting go. His and Molly’s relationship isn’t of the verging-incestuous type, but it is, shall we say, very, very comfortable.
Directed by the prolific, sometimes spot-on, sometimes too lo-fi Duplass brothers, Cyrus reminds me quite a bit of Azazel Jacobs’ Momma’s Man (Jacobs later directed Reilly in Terri, which I haven’t seen, but reminds me from its one-word title and poster of Cyrus). The good thing about Cyrus is that it’s a coming-of-age film told mostly outside of the perspective of the one coming of age. For the bulk of the film there’s little attempt made to sympathize with Cyrus’ “situation,” which is instead mined for awkward laughs.
The performances are strong across the board, but it’s Jonah Hill who’s really the best here. His Cyrus is restrained, conniving, hilarious, and sad all at once. It’s not a tour-de-force, but it is a part that could easily be overplayed by nearly any actor. Hill does a great job of reining Cyrus in, keeping his emotions real and believable, and playing the jokes only as minor plot points rather than as moments to stop, watch and laugh.
While I like much of the simplicity in Cyrus, that’s also its failing. The final 15 minutes, though sweet (and featuring one of the best scenes – a conversation between John and Cyrus on the steps of his apartment), are also too easy. I’m not looking for a histrionic, car-chase moment, but I am looking for the resolution not to come only with time (as is the implication here) and instead with one final obstacle/resolution set-up.