Up Today: Prisoners, I Killed My Mother, and Valhalla Rising.
Quick Take: Prisoners is a dark and better-than-average kidnapping thriller that’s packed with strong performances. I Killed My Mother is a smart and emotionally moving drama that brings an incredible intensity to its exploration of the complex relationship between mothers and their sons. Valhalla Rising is as visceral and as haunting as it is visually stunning, and it provides viewers with a breathtaking and unforgettable ride.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Watched on Jan 25
While it’s not quite as good as Enemy (which I discuss: here), Prisoners is a solid and thought-provoking thriller that features strong performances and offers plenty of suspense. At the same time, the film is simply not as good as it should have been; as good as the bulk of it is, it does not entirely live up to its full potential.
While Jackman does give an intense and emotional performance (and certainly the film’s loudest), Gyllenhaal is actually the member of the cast who contributes the most to the film’s success. As Detective Loki, he is quietly intense, and his performance adds important depth, complexity, and nuance to this bleak and engrossing thriller. The film’s substantial supporting cast (which features Paul Dano, Melissa Leo, Viola Davis, and Terrence Howard) is also quite strong.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins received an Oscar nomination for Prisoners, and it’s clear why. The film’s cold, wet, and colorless landscapes lend an ever-present eeriness to the film. There is something decidedly haunting about the way that this film is shot that encourages viewers to follow Keller’s (Jackman) lead and to prepare for the worst.
Prisoners is clearly interested in a wide range of important and sticky topics, including crime, punishment, religion, guilt, torture, abuse, forgiveness, and the impossibility of safety. This nihilistic, grim, and well-acted film also forces viewers to face the fact that whether or not someone is ‘guilty’ is usually not a simple question and presents a story in which literally every character that it depicts is a prisoner in some way. If it weren’t for Villeneuve’s interest in such complex and hard-to-pin-down topics, Prisoners would not be nearly as good as it is. That said, the film is sometimes a bit heavy-handed with the invocation of its various themes, and its ending is a little too conventionally tidy for my taste. There is an certain cloud of disturbing moral ambiguity hovering over Prisoners that I appreciate; I just wish that its fog had been allowed to linger a little longer.
I Killed My Mother (2009) [J’ai tué ma mère]
Directed by Xavier Dolan
Watched on Jan 28
Written by Xavier Dolan when he was 16/17, and directed and starred in by him when he was 19/20, I Killed My Mother is a powerful, affecting, and emotionally raw film that demonstrates a boldness and a vulnerability not often seen in the same work. This film is the first of Dolan’s that I have seen, and it left me more than eager to see what he has done since making it.
Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is the honesty and the intensity with which it portrays the dynamic between Hubert (Dolan) and his mother Chantale (who is played by Anne Dorval in a fantastic performance). The film does a fantastic job of capturing how the most trivial of things can spark a huge argument between between mother and child, as well as the ways in which such arguments progress, die down, and rise again. With I Killed My Mother, Dolan shows a nuanced understanding of the many complex dichotomies that define the relationship between a child (particularly one on the verge of adulthood) and their parent. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I am in my early 20s (then again, maybe it doesn’t), but the intensity and the reality with which Dolan presents Hubert’s many seemingly incompatible feelings for his mother never struck me as over-the-top; in fact, it left me reeling.
The film’s portrayal of the relationship between Hubert and his boyfriend Antonin is also one of its strengths. The fact that Hubert is homosexual is not the dramatic focus of the film; in this way, I Killed My Mother refuses to essentialize sexuality (which lesser films might have done).
Of course, there are a few places in the film in which Dolan’s inexperience and youth shine through a little too brightly. This mainly occurs with some of the film’s overwrought visuals and with its desire to try too many things at once (black and white, slow motion, still photographs, and more) without giving each enough time to breathe. However, where the film does falter, it does so with a sort of earnest and energetic confidence that it’s hard not to admire.
Watch I Killed My Mother
Valhalla Rising (2009)
Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn
Watched on Feb 01
PSA: Mads Mikkesen and Nicholas Winding Refn are 2 of my hella favs.
I’ve been meaning to watch Valhalla Rising (as well as NWR’s Pusher trilogy) for some time, so when I realized that it was on Netflix a few nights ago, I was pretty stoked. Going into the film, I knew almost nothing about it (except that NWR directed it and that Mads Mikkelsen was in it), which I believe actually added to my overall viewing experience; because I went into this film without any particular assumptions about what it all “means”
(ugh) or about the sort of cinematic journey I was in for, I was able to be more surprised by it, more puzzled by it, and to experience it more fully. Valhalla Rising definitely isn’t for everyone, but for those willing to immerse themselves in it and to take it for what it is, it can be absolutely brilliant.
The way that this film is shot is crucial to its overall effect. In the film, the landscapes are lush, beautiful, strange, and threatening all at once. There is something otherworldly, dreamlike, and eerie about the films visuals that contributes to its hypnotic and almost nightmarish atmosphere (think Aguirre, The Wrath of God, but with less color and more mist).
The film’s haunting, savage, and heart pounding score also contributes to its intensely grim and almost phantasmagoric mood, and it gives one the feeling that the world of the film is nothing short of hostile. In the film, arrows appear and kill people out of nowhere—they might as well have come from the trees; similarly, Peter Peter and Peter Kyed’s score for the film goes from hypnotic and moody to loud and assaulting at the drop of a hat. Given how few words are exchanged in the Valhalla Rising, its score and its visuals end up carrying a great deal of the film’s artistic and narrative weight, and (to my eyes and ears at least) they do so quite successfully.
Mads Mikkelsen does an great job as the film’s lead. As the silent, intimidating, and inscrutable One Eye (a sort of brutal killing machine meets Odin meets Jesus meets mystic character), he is absolutely fascinating. Given that he does not speak and that he only has one eye, the amount of life and complexity that he is able to bring to the performance is really quite remarkable. Whenever he is on screen, the viewer cannot help but stare at him. There is also a power in his movements that deserves praise. No one does violence quite like Refn. That said, Refn’s violence also seems to be at its best (its most terrifying and elegant all at once) when it is being carried out by Mikkelsen.
Get Valhalla Rising on DVD
Until Next Time
Thank you so much for reading. If you’ve seen any of these films, feel free to let me know what you thought of them with a comment below. If you haven’t seen any of them, I strongly recommend all 3! And if you like what I do here, I’d love it if you let me know with a share or a follow. 😀