Critics seem to be perpetually seeking the new Tarkovsky and Bresson. Remember when Bruno Dumont was the new Bresson? And then he made Twentynine Palms and people (hopefully) realized that his is a different transcendence altogether.
After Andrey Zvyagintsev made The Return in 2003 he was immediately anointed Andrei T the 2nd. The Return was phenomenal, and its slow pacing (and Russian-ness) may indeed have called to mind the iconic director of such pictures as Stalker and The Mirror. But Zvyagintsev’s latest feature, his riff on the Euro-thriller, Elena, finds the director closer to Romanian New Wave aesthetics than anything TK put out.
Elena is one of those films that is surface-level-simple: Nedesdha Markina plays the title character, wife of the wealthy Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). When Elena’s son from her first marriage needs money she asks Vladimir, who refuses.
Elena is slow. The first shot is probably about a minute long frame of a tree with crows settling on the branches as the focus changes. Those same crows are all over the soundtrack. Below that surface Elena asks a pretty serious question – when is family more than family? It’s a decently affecting film, and Zvyagintsev gets some seriously transcendent (Bela Tarr-like…are we going to start looking for the next Tarr now that he’s retired?) moments, but Zvyagintsev expects to get more mileage out of silences than he does.
Still some moments are flat-out haunting: Elena passing a dead horse on the train tracks on her commute feels pulled out of Come and See. Philip Glass’s score is one of his better works in years – less predictable and loopy and more atmospheric than he’s usually capable of.
Zvyagintsev also plays quite a bit with sound perspective in interesting narrative ways – an off-screen hospital room door allows us only to hear bits and pieces of the potentially-critical conversation going inside.
There’s a violent handheld sequence near the end of the film – one of the few times the camera feels free and aggressive. It’s a pretty stunning sequence – several teenagers fight in the woods at dusk – and its tenuous link to the main narrative thread is pretty rewarding.
Zvyagintsev plays with perspective and expectations through editing. The story is Elena’s until, about 30 minutes in, there’s a sudden unexpected cut into the car with Vladimir on his way to the gym. It’s surprising: we haven’t followed him alone at all yet. It’s also a great example of editing-as-foreshadow. Because we haven’t been with Vladimir much, the edit, even though nothing much happens, puts us on edge.
I watched this movie kind of accidentally, thinking, for some reason, that it was Internal Affairs with Richard Gere and Andy Garcia. It’s not. And it’s really, really, really awful. I mean painful.
This has TV-movie written all over it, which to me means framing for a small box (a bit of an outdated definition), pacing to fit a predetermined slot and not to spread its cinematic wings, and easy emotions.
The concept is kinda fun: Rollie Tyler (Bryan Brown) is an F/X artist hired by the FBI to fake a mob boss’s killing so that the boss can safely enter the witness protection program. Of course things go horribly awry.
There are decent performances in F/X. Brian Dennehy has one, as does Jerry Orbach (though he plays a huge stereotype). Even Tom Noonan makes a small, menacing cameo that works.
But the film is laugh-out-loud bad. It’s not even a train-wreck of a movie. At least in a train wreck you’d likely find emotion and believable performances. This is closer to a skinned-knee of a movie. No one’s really seriously affected. No one really cares. And it’ll hopefully go away soon.