Saturday, 19 May 2018

I've Just Seen: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

 Director: John McNaughton

So many TV shows, films and, these days, podcasts are devoted to exploring the sensational lives and motivations of serial killers throughout history. We want to know why they killed, what they were thinking, what they were feeling when they killed the person. McNaughton's film doesn't offer any answers to these questions, and doesn't really ask them either. The film is a "portrait", but one that doesn't interrogate its subject, it simply observes wryly.

Michael Rooker is now most famous for his role in Guardians of the Galaxy, and part of me hopes that new fans of his go back and watch his back catalogue. As the titular Henry he is a frightening figure, one whose never explains his many, many kills - though he does provide a rather funny insight into his method. Henry does exhibit a bit of morality regarding Becky, though this is incredibly murky and it is likely he is only feeling attraction, not love. Rooker is great as Henry, leaving us deeply unsettled by the character, yet also giving him a charisma that draws you in.

The look of the film is rough, with grainy film stock and "natural" lighting. This is an ugly world populated by morally repugnant people. The unshowiness of the whole makes this feel realistic. This is a horror film that has no supernatural element, a scenario that could (and frighteningly, has) happened.

While not an easy watch, with an ending that leaves you thinking "Oh crap," it is a clever low-budget horror film. It lives up to its title as the portrait of a serial killer, while also defying the audiences' desire for closure. Why does Henry kill people? We, and likely he, can only guess.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

I've Just Seen: Lady Macbeth (2016)

 Director: William Oldroyd

We first meet Katherine on the day of her wedding, her face obscured under a net-like veil, her eyes wide as she looks around her in disbelief. She looks like a captured creature, forced into a marriage that is really a land sale: she is just part of the deal. Her new husband and his father are awful, treating her as an object and confining her to the house and utter boredom. But Katherine is a determined woman with a strong spirit, and both Mr Lesters and their household are to learn how far she will go to get what she wants.

Florence Pugh is wonderful as Katherine. She uses quiet and stillness brilliantly to convey Katherine's frustration, and there is an ambiguity to the character that keeps you wondering exactly how far she will go (which is ruthlessly far). In her hands Katherine is a modern character without feeling like an anachronism.

The smallness of the budget is used to the film's advantage. The house is stark, adding to its oppressive atmosphere, and also keeps your focus on the actors and their movements and looks. While I do love opulent period dramas, this one does feel fresh by comparison. The camera is a quiet bystander observing the escalating violence without getting frenzied itself. It lingers on uncomfortable scenes, drawing you into the situation.

Another difference to other period dramas is the presence of race. A few of the Lester's servants are black, most notably Anna who interacts with Katherine, and bares much of the brunt of Mr Lester snr.'s wrath. Katherine's lover Sebastian is also black; he is one of the hired hands working on the farm. The colour of their skin is not made a deal of, but plays into the story in interesting ways. Anna becomes mute after a particularly traumatising experience, and the story's climax is made even more devastating because of their colour.

Lady Macbeth is a great film, with one of the best central performances of the early 21st century. Pugh's Katherine reminded me of Jake Gyllanhaal's Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler, another character whose single-minded pursuit works itself out to an astonishing conclusion.