For this week’s review round-up, it’s a foursome! The quartet of titles today are a real mixed bag, which happens. We have two misfires, one mild recommendation, and a mixed bag that I really hemmed and hawed about in terms of a thumbs up or thumbs down. You’ll see which are which shortly, but the four films are the Vincent van Gogh biopic At Eternity’s Gate, the horror hybrid The Clovehitch Killer, the science fiction tinged psychological drama Jonathan, and the documentary The Last Race. These movies are very different, to say the least. The only thing they have in common? Well, that would be that I’m about to discuss them all right now…
Here we go:
At Eternity’s Gate
At one early stage in the game, At Eternity’s Gate seemed like a potentially big Academy Award player. Some high profile film festival debuts, especially at the Closing Night selection at the New York Film Festival, suggested something to go gaga over. Then, I saw it. Despite a strong turn from Willem Dafoe, this movie is one of the year’s most disappointing. A grueling experience, it’s often actively unpleasant to sit through. Dafoe’s quality performance is all for naught. Vincent van Gogh is a prime subject for a biographical project. He deserved better than this. Hell, we all did. There were times where I’d have seriously contemplated an offer of cutting my own ear off to make it all stop.
This biopic is, you guessed it, a look at a period in the life of painter Vincent van Gogh (Dafoe). Inspired by his letters and set during the time period where he lived in Arles as well as Auvers-sur-Oise, we follow him along on his journeys. Largely told in small moments, we see Vincent with his brother Theo van Gogh (Rupert Friend), as well as with various other folks, including artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), as well as impactful priest (Mads Mikkelsen). We see how unappreciated Vincent is as a painter, though it’s fairly clear that he’s also a genius. As we all know, he was mad too, with the artist liberating his ear from his head, all the while careening towards a death that will precede a reinterpretation of his work. Julian Schnabel is in the director’s chair, while he co-writes here with Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg, as well as co-edits with Kugelberg. Other cast members include Mathieu Amalric, Niels Arestrup, Emmanuelle Seigner, and more. Tatiana Lisovkaia provides the score, while cinematography here is by Benoît Delhomme.
I have one good thing to say about this film, and it’s Dafoe. He makes a very good van Gogh, imbuing the character with the sort of passion that the filmmaking struggles with. Scene after scene, and especially the editing, undercuts his work. Still, when you think of the movie, you think of Dafoe’s work. He has a more compelling take on van Gogh than the flick itself does. Had the final product been better, he would have been an immediate Academy Award frontrunner in the Best Actor category. He may still contend (more on that next), though the somewhat divisive reception this one will receive will hurt any chance of him winning.
There’s an offhand chance that At Eternity’s Gate could manage to be an Oscar player, though it will only be in one category. Dafoe in Best Actor is an outside the box possibility. Anything else is just not going to happen. Schnabel won’t be a Best Director contender, that’s for sure. Dafoe is probably going to get some precursor love, and that sort of attention could keep him in the conversation all season long. I expect him to fall short in the end, but who knows? Anything can happen, especially with a respected actor like Dafoe. After falling short last year, some voters may be looking to make it up to him.
At Eternity’s Gate was a punishing cinematic experience for me. I damn near hated it. I loved Dafoe in the central role, but aside from that? Nope. It was a total dud and a misfire in my eyes. Now, this may end up as a minority opinion, but I was majorly let down by everything aside from Dafoe’s work. Now, with something as unusual as this, it’s probably best to see it for yourself and decide. My thumb is way down, but your mileage may vary. Especially if you love Dafoe, or even Schnabel, your experience could be the exact opposite of mine. That’s just how it goes sometimes. For me though, this was a train wreck.
The Clovehitch Killer
Any independent horror outing that tries to pull off something unique is worth a look in my book. Horror is a genre that equally rewards creativity and sticking close to the book. Indie efforts especially work best when shooting for the former, as opposed to the latter. The Clovehitch Killer has an unusual angle, in that it largely sidesteps any bloodshed or violence. There are violent acts, but they’re stretched out until the third act. It’s the kind of film that trusts you to be invested in the story. Unfortunately, things here are a little too bland for that approach. I appreciated the effort, but wished there was a bit more of a happy medium found for it. A little more excitement would have gone a long way.
The movie is an incredibly slow burn. Our protagonist is Tyler Burnside (Charlie Plummer), the sort of All American kid every dad in Middle America wants. Tyler is a Boy Scout, volunteers over at his church, and is almost polite to a fault. He seems like the perfect son to an upstanding member of the community like Don Burnside (Dylan McDermott). The town itself is as quiet as any, save for unsolved murders of a serial killer years back. Known as Clovehitch, this person rocked the Kentucky suburb by torturing and murdering ten women. The identity of the killer was never discovered, but a set of pictures Tyler finds suggests that he may be intimately familiar with Clovehitch. Then, the cat and mouse game begins. Duncan Skiles directs a screenplay by Christopher Ford, with supporting players including Madisen Beaty, Samantha Mathis, Brenna Sherman, and more. McDermott is very good here, though one wishes he had a bit more to do. Again, this is a really slow burn…too slow, in fact.
You can’t help but appreciate how The Clovehitch Killer shows restraint. It tips its hand about who the killer is early on, but still builds tension. If only a bit more happened, this would be an excellent flick. It simply passes the point of effectiveness and becomes a bit boring. When the Middle America commentary is so muted, you just need a bit more. Ford’s script is fine, but was yearning for more stylish filmmaking than Skiles provides. It’s still a calling card film, to say the least. It hints at better work from Skiles in the future, that’s for sure. In spite of my issues here, I’m curious to see what he does next. The movie just ends up going from a slow burn to something just shy of what it clearly wants to be, tension wise.
Overall, The Clovehitch Killer will intrigue horror fans with an open mind, though likely it will frustrate as much as it will pleasure. That’s the nature of this particular beast. Essentially, it’s the sort of thing you appreciate more than you enjoy, just on a very small scale. The more you consume things in this genre, the more interesting this might be, just because it manages to do something different. The tone is effective, though it all adds up to something a bit shy of what I can recommend. It’s not far off, but it arguably should have been better, ultimately. Alas.
Ansel Elgort is really good in the right role. In particular, he was terrific in The Fault in Our Stars. That film utilized him perfectly. The mix of charm and charisma was on full display there. Elgort has more to offer than that, however, so when he signed on to this little sci-fi drama, that was a great sign. Sadly, despite some strong work from him in the title role, this is pretty dull stuff. A cool high concept set up ends up going almost nowhere. Every single time it threatens to get interesting, things grind to a screeching halt. What a bummer.
The film is a character study at its core, just with a sci-fi twist. The set up leaves a lot of questions, due to its simplicity. Jonathan (Elgort) follows a strict schedule. At noon, he leaves the office that he works at. When he gets home, he almost immediately goes to sleep. Then, when he wakes up in the morning, he finds a full breakfast prepared for him, but that’s not all. Along with the meal, there’s a video waiting that tells him about the second part of his day. What is going on with him? Well, it turns out he has a twin brother, one that shares the same body. So, they split his time. This has worked their entire lives, the Jonathan/John split, but when a girlfriend (Suki Waterhouse) enters the picture, things get complicated. Dr. Mina Nariman (Patricia Clarkson) has helped them for years, but this time, it may be too late for them. Bill Oliver directs here and co-writes with Gregory Davis and Peter Nickowitz. Among supporting players, Matt Bomer and Douglas Hodge have small parts to play.
This movie has one thing going for it, and it’s Elgort. He gives the complicated role his all. Unfortunately, he’s about the only thing going for the project. After a decent first act, things get boring, then ridiculous, then both. The major disappointment it becomes lays at the feet of Oliver and company, as opposed to Elgort. There’s no style here, so once the mystery plays out, there’s nothing left to latch on to. Elgort certainly tries to save it, but this is beyond his capabilities. As for Clarkson and Waterhouse, they’re utterly wasted. It’s all about Elgort, though that’s clearly not enough.
Jonathan is the sort of project that probably looked way better on the page than it does on the big screen. The pitch likely was an easy sell at that early stage. Even for the cast, especially in regards to the lead part, it had to be appealing. It makes total sense why Elgort wanted the part. The thing is, once you start filming it, the shortcomings become all too apparent. The germ of an idea is here, it’s just not played with in any sort of compelling or satisfying manner. You just sit there waiting for it all to come to an end.
If you love Elgort, you may want to give Jonathan a look. Then again, considering how it will probably disappoint you, maybe you shouldn’t? I know I was really let down by it. Wasting Clarkson is a small scale crime in and of itself, but when you give an interesting young actor this sort of part, you owe it to them to give them more to do. Elgort tries to keep you interested, but the intrigue doesn’t last for too long. By the time especially strange things in the third act start going down, you’re already checked out. He’ll have better roles in the future, with this one rightly forgotten about.
The Last Race
There shouldn’t be anything inherently compelling about a documentary centering on a little race track out on Long Island. New York isn’t exactly a racing hub, so what could be special here? Well, in the case of The Last Race, it’s the filmmaking the quiet dignity of the track itself that makes this so intriguing. Sort of like a small scale version of a Frederick Weisman doc, this movie is all about the small moments that add up to something larger. Will it blow you away? No, that’s unlikely. Will it wind up compelling you to keep watching in an unexpectedly effective way? Yes.
The documentary is a look at one particular Long Island race track for stock car events. The Riverhead Raceway, owned by a pair of 87 year olds in Barbara Cromarty and Jim Cromarty, is a place unto itself. Once upon a time, Long Island had dozens of similar tracks, in the neighborhood of 40 in total. Now, it’s down to just this one. Obviously, the specter of closing looms over it on a daily basis. The doc mostly follows along as we see who comes and goes at the track, who races, who observed, and paints a portrait of a very unique little community. Photographer turned documentarian Michael Dweck directs, having co-written the script with Gregory Kershaw. By the end, it might just sneak up on you.
Michael Dweck clearly cares about this spot. Combined with some novel filmmaking concepts, he makes The Last Race something intriguing. Between his passion for the subject matter and novel use of sound, there’s some strong technical prowess on display from Dweck. That helps make a somewhat thin, plot wise at least, doc seem larger than life. It’s the sort of trick that a confident filmmaker can pull off. If there’s a major complaint, it’s that little of it sticks after the film ends. This is the sort of doc that won’t stay with you. While the movie is playing, though…you’re in it, that’s for sure.
Given the amazing competition for a Best Documentary Feature nomination, The Last Race will struggle to contend for an Oscar nod. A win in the category is out of the question, but until the shortlist comes out, you can’t fully discount its chances. It’s a long shot, for sure, but it’s in the running at least. A nom would be surprising, though the quality is there. More likely, it’ll fade into the shadow of higher profile things like Fahrenheit 11/9, Minding the Gap, RBG, Three Identical Strangers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and so on. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
Don’t go into The Last Race expecting a future Academy Award winner. That’s the wrong mindset to have. Instead, just expect a solid documentary about a unique subject. Dweck and company take their passion for the Riverhead Raceway and manage to make you care too. That’s a nice little achievement on their part. In other hands, that might not have been the case. If this subject matter interests you at all, you’ll be captivated. If you’re indifferent, like me, it’ll work hard to win you over. It did for me, in short order too, so give it a shot and see what you think.
All four films hit theaters this weekend!