2014, Terry Gilliam
Terry Gilliam is always going to be one of those directors who I consider a personal favorite, even though at this point it’s been a while (almost a decade) since he’s made a truly great picture. Since Twelve Monkeys, his last excellent work, he’s been toiling away in interesting but flawed projects like the entertaining but studio-sliced Brothers Grimm and the chaotic, underrated Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. While he continues to try to raise up his endlessly-in-development-hell adaptation of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (which is back in pre-production again — we’ll see how long that lasts), Gilliam managed to find enough time to churn out another feature, perhaps his smallest yet, titled The Zero Theorem. While taking place primarily in one room, The Zero Theorem also encompasses larger themes of a detailed, technologically advanced world as it sets itself in a future dystopia not dissimilar to the one that Gilliam created in his greatest masterpiece, Brazil.
In fact, Zero Theorem perhaps invites a few too many comparisons to that magnificent picture, to a point where it looks worse by comparison as its unfocused script never manages to have the same kind of pop or energy that Brazil tore up in every frame. While that film had so much on its mind in terms of biting social commentary and riveting entertainment value, The Zero Theorem doesn’t do much of either and finds itself mostly centered on a singular story of one man that stretches itself out far too long. Written by Pat Rushin (his first screenplay), this is the story of a computer whiz named Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a peculiar man who is assigned by his boss, known only as Management, to crack an equation in order to prove that life itself is meaningless. It’s a weighty premise to base your movie on, but instead of probing into the complexities of such a mission, Rushin’s script opens up a few interesting ideas early on before simply dancing around them for 95% of the movie and then awkwardly trying to wrap things up as ambiguously as possible in the final ten minutes.
As always, Gilliam is a magnificent world-builder in every sense of the word and he constructs Leth’s environment (the film is mainly located in Leth’s home, where he is allowed to take his work once getting the assignment) seamlessly with so much going on, yet never losing sight of his main character and the journey he’s on. With all of its visual splendor and magnificent production design, I can certainly say I never became tired of watching The Zero Theorem but with a script so unfocused I can’t say at the end of it all that I’m entirely sure what the point was. Though maybe for a movie all about a man trying to formulate an equation to prove that life is meaningless that is…the point? I doubt it, because if it were I probably wouldn’t have left this experience feeling so empty. Rushin tosses in a quick and vague resolution in the final act that includes a conversation with Management himself (played in a brief appearance by Matt Damon) which is so on-the-nose in its anti-religious angle that it leaves a bitter taste but at the same time the ideas it brings up are interesting to reflect on.
There’s a lot in The Zero Theorem that’s open to interpretation and I’d venture to say that it’s too open by means of a script that doesn’t have the intelligence to develop itself fully so instead it relies on lazy ambiguity to give off the false impression of deeper meaning. Gilliam’s direction is sincere and helps to keep the film moving along at a relatively digestible pace, but he can’t make up for Rushin’s frustrating writing or the derivative nature of a man honing in on past successes without bringing anything new to the table. If there’s any saving grace for The Zero Theorem it’d be Christoph Waltz in the leading role, who starts off a little too heavy on the tics (thanks to a script that writes in a few too many meaningless oddities throughout to try to make up for its lack of depth) but eventually he forms an emotional arc and sincere investment in Leth that I never would have expected after watching the first act. Overall, as a big Gilliam fan (still), this was unquestionably a disappointment but at the same time there was enough to keep me somewhat interested throughout and not entirely opposed to the experience.
2014, Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch has always been a filmmaker walking a fine line between appropriately measured and frustratingly dull. His films take their time, neither asking for attention nor waiting for approval from the audience to see if they’re along for the ride or not. For over three decades now he has been a man existing very much in his own space, never following in the footsteps of many independent directors who shift into more elaborate, high-budget affair and while he jumps from dramas diverse as westerns and modern samurai gangster tales he has always remained distinctly himself. No one can watch a Jim Jarmusch movie and mistake it for anything other than his own. So when he announced that his newest picture, Only Lovers Left Alive, would feature Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as vampires in the present day (or some version of it), there was no doubt that this wouldn’t be another tired retread of the vampire craze that we’ve seen take over both television and film in the past decade.
No, Only Lovers Left Alive is from the opening moments unquestionably a Jarmusch picture first and foremost, as all of his works are but for me this was the rare piece from the director that never transcended past that disassociated indifference to transfix me the way his other works have. In fact, through his entire filmography it’s strange to say that the only pictures that haven’t worked for me on some level are his two most recent, the other being the Euro-tinged assassin flick The Limits of Control. Only Lovers Left Alive features all of the staples present in his work; a kicking soundtrack which features even more prominently thanks to the musical inclination of Hiddleston’s Adam; a perfectly suited cast that places talent like Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Anton Yelchin and Jeffrey Wright (underused but makes the most of his small role) alongside the two leads; a laconic, measured approach that sits quietly rather than leaping up to take the viewer by the hand and guide them through the world. Only Lovers Left Alive is a patient movie but it was one that never ended up in a place that I felt rewarded the journey I took with it.
There’s a stretch in the middle once Wasikowska’s character is introduced, the sister of Swinton’s Eve who has come to Detroit to reunite with her longtime lover Adam who is suicidal for what seems like the dozenth time across his long life, where the film really livens up and keeps the energy going until she makes her exit but unfortunately that was the only period where I felt myself engaged in what was happening on screen. Wasikowska is consistently delivering as an actress in recent years, making her way through the works of auteurs like Cary Fukunaga, Chan-wook Park and David Cronenberg with breathless ease, traversing whatever genre as if she’d been living these characters her entire life and there’s a playfulness to her work here that we haven’t seen from her before. After seeing her take on such a quietly devilish character in Park’s Stoker (not a vampire film, despite the teasing title) last year it was a genuine treat to see her come out with a more infantile and energetic ball of chaos with her work as Ava here. Not only that, but having her come into this dreary, seemingly endless world of melancholy gave everyone around her the needed spark for a picture that was actually engaging to watch. Hiddleston’s dry delivery became a comedic treat when bounced against Wasikowska’s youthfulness and Swinton was right there for the ride playing both sides of the equation.
Yet unfortunately it would come that Ava leaves as furiously as she enters and the picture returns to that place of tediousness it previously existed in as if it hadn’t missed a beat. To be fair, there’s a point to the monotony in Jarmusch’s approach and I don’t think this picture was anything other than what he intended it to be. Adam’s suicidal nature comes from a sense of boredom with the way the world has become, a place so endlessly routine and repetitive, that anyone would feel after living in it for centuries. I felt as though Only Lovers Left Alive is one of the few true depictions of what life would actually be like in the modern age for a vampire who had lived as long as someone like Adam or Eve had been kicking around. Surely this was Jarmusch’s intention and the actors pulled it off in convincing form but there’s a way to make boring, muted lives engaging to watch and it didn’t accomplish that for me. Jarmusch has always been an interesting filmmaker in the way that his work really does walk right on that line between boring you to tears or absorbing you completely, as if a flick of a switch can change your opinion on one of his films entirely, and I’m almost always on the side of those passionately in his corner but Only Lovers Left Alive is a rare time that I just couldn’t invest in the work no matter how much I wanted to.