Beyond the Multiplex

Samuel L. Jackson stars in a heartfelt drama about Iraq veterans; Tim Robbins and Sarah Polley find love on an oil rig.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published December 14, 2006 1:00PM (EST)

We're a week or so away from the bewildering deluge of films -- good, bad or indifferent, but all with grand ambitions -- that will come raining down upon us in the last 10 days of the year. Two dark-horse award candidates do surface this week: a sober, straightforward drama about Iraq veterans coming home to irreparably altered lives, starring Samuel L. Jackson in a memorable performance; and a tender, melancholy two-hander for Tim Robbins and Sarah Polley, set on an oil rig in the North Sea.

Surveying the immediate past and immediate future of the indie-film landscape, I arrive at an apparent paradox. It's ending up as no better than a middling year for independent cinema, and surprise hits like "Little Miss Sunshine" or "An Inconvenient Truth" may make the picture look brighter, both aesthetically and economically, than it really is. At the same time, award season this year looks wide open to movies big and small, and audiences seem hungrier for unconventional material than most intellectual gloomster film-critic types are ready to admit.

If prestige Hollywood spectacles such as Paul Greengrass' "United 93" and Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" look, right now, like leading Oscar contenders, so do Stephen Frears' "The Queen" and Todd Field's "Little Children." Nobody would be surprised to see a foreign-language film -- maybe Pedro Almodóvar's "Volver," Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" or the German secret-police drama "The Lives of Others" (which won't be released until February) nominated in one or more major categories. I'm sure I'll get several more opportunities to refer to the director of that last film, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who must possess the most delicious name in world cinema right now. Start dropping it on your friends: "So, what do you make of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck? The real thing, or just pretentious Eurotrash?"

Meanwhile, David Lynch's self-distribution of "Inland Empire," probably the most difficult film of his entire career, got off to a rousing start last weekend, grossing $38,000 at just two theaters, in New York and Boston. I know, that doesn't even buy one severed head for Mel Gibson. But releasing a film is a question of scale, and if Lynch and his partners can get results like that at a handful of art houses, they could actually make their murky and disturbing three-hour movie profitable. (Lynch's "Mulholland Drive," by contrast, was distributed too widely in too many markets, and actually lost money at the box office, despite generating tons of ink and energizing a universe of hardcore fans.)

Of course there have been disappointments. Despite a massive publicity push, Richard Linkater's ambitious farrago "Fast Food Nation" sank almost without a trace. "Half Nelson" and "Shortbus," two pictures much adored by critics that will turn up on lots of 10-best lists, generated modest art-house audiences but nothing more. Kelly Reichardt's "Old Joy," one of the year's best-reviewed films, won't even gross $200,000. As always, there were good films released this year -- "The Aura," "Flannel Pajamas," "Lunacy," "Requiem" -- that for various reasons almost nobody went to see. They must await the redemptive promise of life eternal on DVD.

It's a ruthless business, like life itself, and as we cast a cold eye at the casualty list we also look forward. I'll have more to say about the list of upcoming premieres at Sundance in due course (I'll be there, shivering among the stars), but by this time next month we'll be talking about the films set to become 2007's hits and flops. Here's the early, early line: Watch out for Gregg Araki's stoner epic "Smiley Face," Justin Lin's Bruce Lee mockumentary "Finishing the Game," Steve Buscemi's cryptic thriller "Interview," Craig Brewer's erotic Southern Gothic "Black Snake Moan" and Mike White's bittersweet comedy "The Year of the Dog." On with the show.

"Home of the Brave": Iraq vets face the best, and worst, years of their lives
I fully expected Irwin Winkler, the veteran Hollywood insider who has produced more than 50 films (and directed seven), to duck my first question about "Home of the Brave," his straightforward and moving new drama about the lives of returning Iraq-war veterans. I even asked it that way: "Here's a question you probably won't answer, Irwin. Is this an antiwar film?"

But I guess you don't get to be a Hollywood insider in the first place by keeping your opinions a secret, and at 75, Winkler may not care much about currying favor with those who don't agree with him. "I think any film that shows the results of a war, where people get killed and maimed, and their lives are ruined -- I guess that's an antiwar film," he tells me on the phone from his Los Angeles office. "It can't be pro-war. How could it be anything but antiwar?"

"Home of the Brave" isn't exactly a subtle or a delicate picture -- it's an old-fashioned Hollywood movie, at least in tone, that's being released like an indie -- but it has some terrific acting and comes straight from the heart. Taking their general inspiration from William Wyler's 1946 Hollywood classic "The Best Years of Our Lives," Winkler and screenwriter Mark Friedman follow a group of American soldiers as they come home from Iraq to Spokane, Wash., where they try to pick up their normal lives in a nation that seems oblivious to their traumatic experience.

"This picture has been cooking a long time, I suppose since the war started," Winkler says. "I always wondered what happened to the soldiers who come home and then, after the welcome-home parties are over, have to start dealing with their jobs, their families. I'd like people in the audience to experience the emotions of the servicemen and women, to live through a little of what they've lived through."

In the showcase performance, Samuel L. Jackson plays an Army surgeon who comes back to his upper-middle-class life and his lucrative private practice, but slides into alcoholism, cynicism and abusive behavior. The part's not all that interesting, but Jackson is the kind of actor who can rise above hackneyed material, and he makes this doctor's blend of patriotism, self-hatred and strangled emotion seem fully believable, and entirely menacing. He delivers a drunken monologue at the Thanksgiving dinner table (to which he has brought several uninvited guests, Mexican immigrants doing yard work in his neighborhood) with heights of Shakespearean nobility, and lows of sheer terror.

"I was very apprehensive about shooting that scene, frankly," says Winkler. "I felt like I didn't know where it was going. But Sam nailed it right away. He is the kind of actor who comes thoroughly prepared and knows what he wants to do. Sam had some ideas about how to build the scene, how to play the drunkenness so it was first funny and then embarrassing and then frightening. After we did one run-through I knew we were home free."

In the film's other stories, Jessica Biel plays a female soldier who loses a hand in a roadside bombing, and must adjust to her new prosthesis, as well as single motherhood and resuming her job as a high-school P.E. teacher. Curtis Jackson (aka the rapper 50 Cent) brings heat and fervor to a borderline-stereotypical part as the hothead black guy who can't deal with the consequences of his emotional and physical damage and makes a series of stupid mistakes. Brian Presley, a former star of the TV soap "Port Charles," plays the film's philosophical linchpin, a likable kid who lost his best friend in Iraq and seeks some redemptive message in the experience.

At its weaker moments, "Home of the Brave" feels like issue-of-the-week filmmaking. (Although I enjoyed the discussion between Presley and Biel's characters about the lengthy litany of psychiatric and pain medication they've been prescribed.) But it marks the beginning of what may be a long on-screen discussion about the Iraq war and its consequences. None of the Iraq documentaries released so far has found any audience at all, and Winkler's foursquare dramatic mode and evenhanded approach may reach many American families who feel understandably conflicted about the questions it raises.

Despite the director's personal views, the film depicts several characters who support the war, and one of the four soldiers decides to reenlist for another hitch in the desert. "I wanted to tell a story about the soldiers," Winkler says. "I didn't want to talk about the political aspects of the war. I wanted to show what happens to the soldiers who fight it. I'm very antiwar, but a lot of soldiers feel that they're serving their country, no matter what the leaders say. It's a pro-soldier movie and a pro-family movie. At a screening here in Los Angeles, we had one young man stand up and say that he's been unable to express how he feels, since he came home from Iraq, and that this film is expressing it."

Despite Winkler's debt to "The Best Years of Our Lives," there are clear differences. As he observes, Wyler's film comes to a happy conclusion, with the returning World War II GIs married, buying houses, leaving the blood of Europe and the Pacific behind them and moving into postwar prosperity. "Home of the Brave" never arrives at that kind of sunny conclusion. As someone who has lived through that era and this one, does Winkler take a more pessimistic view of contemporary American society? His answer is brusque: "That's absolutely correct."

"Home of the Brave" opens Dec. 15 in New York and Los Angeles, with a wider release to follow in January.

"The Secret Life of Words": A blind man, a deaf woman, an oil rig, a duck and millions of waves
A tantalizing and beautiful picture made with tremendous integrity, and anchored by two marvelous performances, Isabel Coixet's "The Secret Life of Words" still, somehow, doesn't quite work. What begins as a mysterious encounter between two damaged strangers, marooned together on an oil rig in the middle of the North Sea, eventually becomes (to my taste) entirely too literal-minded and specific. Not every viewer will agree, of course, and despite my final verdict I think this is a film not to miss.

All we know about Hanna, played by the luminous Canadian actress Sarah Polley, is that she works in a factory somewhere in the British Isles (it's Belfast, but you'll notice that only if you're paying close attention), that she wears a hearing aid, and that she seems to be an immigrant from somewhere else. Come to think of it, there's one other thing: She eats only breaded chicken, white rice and apples. Nothing else, not at any meal of the day, not ever.

When her boss more or less forces her into a seaside holiday, Hanna overhears a stranger talking on his cellphone in a Chinese restaurant and volunteers for a job no one wants, serving as a nurse to a severely burned man stuck on an oil rig, somewhere off the Irish coast. So that's more information: Wherever she came from, she worked as a nurse there.

Josef (Tim Robbins), the injured man, who is temporarily blind and running dangerous fevers, is more talkative but almost as mysterious. An American, perhaps a Texan by his accent, Josef seems to be the intellectual type, a reader of art criticism and poetry. Hanna listens to his voice mail; a woman to whom he has lent "Letters From a Portuguese Nun" -- and, as we later discover, Lorrie Moore's "Birds of America" -- has called to say she loves him. Hanna tells Josef almost nothing about herself, not even her name. Josef spins stories for Hanna that have the feeling of being 90 percent bullshit.

Coixet, a Spanish filmmaker who writes and shoots her own pictures, composes intimate, supernally lovely images. She captures the lonely oil rig, shut down since the accident that injured Josef and killed another man, as if it were a haunted spaceship. I couldn't help thinking of Tarkovsky's "Solaris": the skeleton crew, the empty corridors, the voices and faces of those left behind. There's an idealistic oceanographer, measuring the 25 million waves that have hit the rig since it was built. There's a white duck named Lisa. There are two manly, married crew members who have quite a different relationship late at night.

Honestly, I wish that was it; it's more than enough. But Coixet has something bigger, and no doubt highly honorable, in mind. We begin to suspect something about Hanna's past, and for that matter about Josef's too, during the odd, tender dishonesty of their oil-rig acquaintance. Then we learn their stories, or at least the key moments that explain much of Hanna's closed-down reticence and Josef's phony bluster.

Then there's a second movie, attached to the first one. After Josef is well enough to leave the rig, "The Secret Life of Words" becomes an extended, romantic coda: Josef loses Hanna and pursues her by way of Copenhagen, where he visits an archivist of Balkan-war horror stories (played by Julie Christie). Coixet wants us to understand everything we didn't understand about Hanna, but in a curious way all the information makes us understand less.

Instead of being a visionary film that shows us how people behave when they have been tremendously damaged, this becomes an explanatory film that tells us that its characters have been damaged, and need love to heal them. This may or may not be true, but it's definitely a truism, and it dissolves at least some of the picture's potency and mystery into cliché.

"The Secret Life of Words" opens Dec. 15 at the Quad Cinema in New York, and Dec. 22 in Los Angeles. More cities will follow.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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