Stare at anything long enough...
Antonio Campos
Ezra Miller, Michael Stulbarg, Jeremy Allen White, Addison Timlin
The Setup: 
Oh dear, oh dear, today’s troubled youth.

So here we have this movie, the main feature of which is that the director was 24 when he made it. I had a mild degree of interest in it, as I am interested in works that damn today’s moronic whippersnappers, and since my friend was too, off we went. We found upon arriving at the theater that the director and one of the actors was going to show up and answer questions after the movie, which also happened a few weeks ago when we went to see Big Fan. Christ, can’t a person just go to a movie anymore without the director showing up to hector them?

So we open with a bunch of YouTube-type videos: a baby falling and hitting his head, a guy taking a spill off a bike and right onto his face, a keyboard-playing cat [not the legendary Keyboard Cat, however], the hanging of Saddam Hussein, and finally settling upon, where a guy holds a girl by the throat as he verbally degrades her, leading into the physical degradation to follow. Then we see that the person watching this is but a young boy in a private school. This is our main character, Robert, who is quiet and extremely reserved. We then have about a half-hour of observation about what’s happening at this school: Robert’s roommate sells cocaine. A kid at the lunch table boasts at length about fucking another kid’s sister. We see the kids line up in a hallway to receive their medication. A girl arrives late for a school assembly, and the principal or whoever makes a joke in front of everyone that she’ll end up working at McDonalds. Robert calls his mom and tells her he thinks he’s a bad person, and she tells him to go on medication. “Tell me you’re okay,” she says, “I don’t want to worry about you.” By the way, a great deal of this is shot with unusual framing, the tops of people’s heads cut off, or looking at their ankles, or whatever.

Robert is in a video production club, and eventually has sex with one of his classmates, holding her by the throat as though choking her, like he saw in the porn video at the beginning. Blah, blah, one day Robert is filming in a hallway when all of a sudden these two girls stumble out and collapse. He goes and settles down next to one, but the camera remains so far away we can’t see what he’s doing. Eventually a crowd starts gathering round and a teacher asks him why he didn’t go for help. As Robert is led away, we see his pants are stained with blood. Both girls end up dead.

The school has a vigil. Robert takes on the project of making a memorial video, and sets about interviewing the girls’ parents [they were twins] and various friend and students, some of whom never met the girls. The video he makes, artsily raw, disturbing and without sound, appalls a teacher or someone [we never see] who is “very disappointed” in Robert, and says “there isn’t even music!” This is quickly followed by a version made by someone else, much more in line with the expected popular taste, with drippy greeting card sentiments and sappy music.

Blah blah, mope mope, and we see that there is starting to be an unexplained tension between Robert and his roommate, Dave. They have a hallway fight—filmed and posted online by one of the other students—wherein Rob says it’s Dave’s fault for killing the girls—and you will recall that Dave sells cocaine, and it was bad cocaine that killed the girls. Then we see that someone was making a video of Robert as he knelt over the girls, and he seems to be making these motions that hint he may have been doing something untoward to them during their final moments. Isn’t that the most inoffensive way you’ve ever heard of expressing “jerking off on her face?” Though actually he wasn’t doing that either. After a little more bullshit we get a quick glimpse of Robert covering the girl’s mouth as she dies. We never find out who was taking the video of him.

The film ends with him at a desk, when he suddenly feels like someone is watching him from behind. When he turns, no one is there, but then we see a pixellated video shot from the behind-him perspective, as if to say that he sees his life as one extended YouTube video. The end.

I just didn’t think it was very good. Or, put it this way: it was very thin. Here’s the thing: you might find something very meaningful, like a newspaper blowing down the street or tree branches swaying in the wind, and unending footage of that might be very moving to you, and it could be meaningful to others IF you provide them a structure or context to view it in. But if you just shoot it and plop it in your film, there’s a good chance no one else will engage with it. This film features a lot of extremely long takes and sequences of questionable interest—Robert’s fascination with an automatic faucet comes to mind—and while they are presented as though they must be really interesting and revealing, it’s also quite possible that they are in fact pointless and boring, meaningful only to the director.

Because here’s the other thing: Making a film of such ostentatiously unusual style also serves as a defensive move. If you don’t like it, well, YOU just don’t understand. YOU’RE a philistine. YOU aren’t catching all the influences and allusions. This becomes a distinct possibility after an hour of setting Robert up as a troubled kid—but troubled because he’s too SENSITIVE!—then having him turn in his version of the memorial video for the girls. It has long takes that don’t outwardly “show” anything in the traditional sense, why, sort of like this movie. It has long silences, and no music—again, like this movie. And then it gets criticized, right on screen, for being too unconventional—“There’s not even any music!”—but we are to understand that the person delivering the criticism is a dolt, incapable of understanding filmmaking genius. This is immediately followed with the socially-acceptable, conventional and outright bad film for the masses, and are invited to feel a moment that the people who eat it up are brain-dead morons. M. Night Shyamalan received a lot of criticism for having an annoyingly pedantic film critic be eaten by a monster in one of his films, but how is this any different? In many subtle ways [not least of which is having it be so well known that the writer/director was only 24], this movie armors itself against any kind of criticism.

But you know, the simple truth could be that the movie is just loose, thin, and more than a little dull. The director and one of the stars came out and talked a little bit about the film after, and my friend asked him if there was a clue in the film as to who was taking the video that caught Robert at the moment of the girls’ death, and the director said no. This, I believe, is the moment my friend stopped trying to like this film. It’s one thing to leave one element mysterious when it’s set within a very structured context, so a lot of meanings can be read into it. But when it’s just one unmoored element among a number of other unmoored elements—the director also mentioned that the important shot of Robert covering the girl’s mouth at the end was just one of many explanations considered, and thrown in as an afterthought—what you end up with is not an evocative mass of mysterious meanings, but a shapeless mass of bullshit.

The Q&A with the director and one of the actors was a bit like being trapped in a DVD commentary and unable to turn it off [a friend of mine said this could be a movie in itself, called Captive Audience]. The actor thanked the director for casting him in such a beautifully-written and directed film. The director said he couldn’t have done it without the fabulous actors. Then a fellow from the audience told the director that his framing was [and I quote] “RADICAL.” I rolled my eyes really hard right then, and had to recall simple manners, as the director was ten feet in front of me. Another revealing thing the director said was that people criticize him for wearing his influences on his stylistic sleeve, but he feels that he strains them through his own sensibilities before they make it up on the screen. There are two things to say about this: a) Doesn’t everybody? It goes without saying that no one is going to just recreate their influences, that they will be affected by one’s own perspective, and that’s not really a badge of honor. And b), I think what those critics are saying is that the director here hasn’t distanced himself from his influences ENOUGH, so what you’re watching is not anything interesting or new, but just second-rate imitation Haneke or Tarkovsky.

Ultimately, I think what people are amazed by is not that a 24-year-old would make such a brilliant movie, but that a 24-year-old would make a movie so slow and ostentatiously stylistic. There are worse things you could see, but there are also considerably better, and it might be wise to just let this one slip down the memory hole. It does, in many unfortunate ways, really seem like a movie made by a 24-year-old.

Should you watch it: 

I wouldn’t. I’m kind of sorry I did.