Something Wild [1986] – A Mildly Subversive and Unpredictable Road Movie

The American independent road movies of the 1980s witnessed a paradigm shift when compared to similar films made in the late 1960s & 70s. The rebels who broke away from the cultural inhibitions were now perceived as eccentric persons, waiting to reintegrate themselves back into the family unit. Gone are the days of puzzling men hitting the road with their iconoclastic bikes, in search of the so-called freedom in a conformist society. Nevertheless, the interesting element in the 80s American road movies is the balanced portrayal of women (contrary to earlier era road movies that solely focused on men). Nastassja Kinski in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984), Julie Hagerty in Albert Brooks’ Lost In America (1985) were much more complex female characters. They didn’t fit into boorish category of ‘wild’ or ‘tamed’ women. Jonathan Demme’s unpredictable screwball comedy -- written by Max Frye -- Something Wild (1986) furthered this complex depiction of women in road films. The film’s Audrey ‘Lulu’ Hankel (mesmerizingly performed by Melanie Griffith) engages in subversive behavior in a society where the cultural status quo has been reinstated. Rebels are now comprehended as looneys; the hippies are replaced with yuppies (young urban professional). The dream to be a rebel stays alive in the movie’s characters. When the wheels are set in motion and this particular dream is achieved, there’s only threatening consequences and no sense of gratification.

Jonathan Demme’s overlooked gem is a fascinating tale of self-reinvention. It starts off as a quirky road-trip rom-com and gradually wades into nightmarish territory, reminiscent of Scorsese’ After Hours (1985) and Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). The protagonist is a young business executive Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels), who has buried his rebellious streak within. Soon, he is going to be the corporate company’s VP. A trickle of rebellious attitude escapes now and then, provoking Charles to skip out on the check at a restaurant. As Charles silently sneaks out of the restaurant without paying, he is confronted by a woman on the street. The woman calls herself Lulu whose bob haircut, eye-catching exotic jewellery perfectly contrasts Charles’ conservative grey suit. Lulu’s appearance was modeled after the appearance of silent-era actress Louise Brooks – best known for her iconic role in Pabst’ Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). When we first see Lulu she is reading a book on Frida Kahlo, an enigmatic and extraordinary artist. What connects the fiercely independent, sexually charged woman and the buttoned-up executive is the urge to revel in debauchery. Lulu was just looking for a naïve man to kidnap and take him on a rampant road trip.

Lulu’s intentions for the journey aren’t explained much and its intriguing how Charles easily gives into her impulsion. He shows her the picture of his happy family (wife, son and daughter) in the wallet and moreover confides that there’s important work to be finished in the afternoon, before the upcoming weekend. Yet, when Lulu stops at a motel after ripping off at a liquor store, intoxicated Charles follows her to bed. Speaking in hushed tones, Lulu literally gets on top of Charles, ramping up the wildness. Charles finds more pleasure in this adventure. He is also careful to not get caught and there’s a simple reason for the yuppie to break away from the traditional life. But what’s the story behind Lulu, the hedonist? We get the details of her story, but we don’t figure out what’s in it for Lulu to take this trip. The trip runs from Manhattan to Pennsylvania, where Lulu sheds off her black wig & jewelries (to reveal golden blonde hair), discloses her real name (Audrey Hankel), and transforms into a small-town girl in order to visit her old-fashioned mother.  By the time, the darkly fierce Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta) joins Lulu, everything turns into a nightmare. The intensified Capra-esque style wildly shifts to the territory of Coen Brothers or Lynch. Furthermore, we aren’t sure about who is playing who.

Something Wild would certainly divide viewers (especially it’s erratic tonal shifts). The script written by then-recent NYU graduate Max Frye blurs genre boundaries as it traverses down the same ‘road’ in both directions. Frye’s intricate writing includes ironical road signs, puzzling locales, and genial multicultural individuals whose presence transcends the visual dryness of typical road-movie rom-com. Demme and Frye perfectly worked together to create the sense of place through its people. There’s ample space provided to document the thriving life around Charles & Lulu’s journey. Case in point, the film’s opening scene, which doesn’t establish the characters, but only the atmospherics. Even though the environment doesn’t have a huge hold over the narrative dynamics, there’s something fascinating about it. Acclaimed cinematographer Tak Fujimoto amplifies the stylistics while capturing the ever-changing dynamics of the American cityscapes. But, for the most part the cinematography isn’t intrusive as it allows the actors to do all the heavy-lifting.

The writing or direction doesn’t entirely reinvent romantic formulas, but we don’t often see rom-com’s diffused with juicy subtext of class antagonism – between Charlie and Ray. Resting beneath the layers of antagonism is their vulnerabilities which is revealed in the third act. However, Lulu isn’t just depicted as an object in the middle of this antagonism, waiting to be claimed by the winning side. She is too proud and independent to fall for simple romantic notions. I particularly liked how the journey doesn’t lead to any big changes. The character doesn’t entirely break away from their respective pasts. Yet, the possibility for the self to evolve and further redeem oneself is kept alive. “What are you gonna do now you've seen how the other half lives? The other half of you” asks Audrey to Charles. Dreams are limitless, laced with our fantasies. When dream comes true there’s clear picture of its limitations. Self-reinvention commences after learning these limitations and maturing alongside the pursuit of dreams. By the very end, Charles’ individual boundaries isn't just extended, but entirely transformed. What does this transformation or personal reinvention mean for his life and relationship with Lulu? That’s sensibly left for us to decide. Director Demme scores huge points for casting the right actors for the three central roles. Ray Sinclair was Ray Liotta’s first major role. His specialization of playing charming sociopaths started with this film. 



Something Wild (113 minutes) is a must-watch genre defying exercise in director Jonathan Demme’s oeuvre, whose film-making approach refused to be pigeon-holed by particular style or theme. It’s starts off as a smart, seductive comedy and wildly veers off to unexpected cinematic territories (which perfectly worked for me).  

Death of a Cyclist [1955] – A Class-Conscious Drama tinged with Film-Noir Textures

Juan Antonio Bardem was one of the luminaries of the post-World War II Spanish cinema. As a committed communist, Bardem didn’t mince words when it came to criticizing Franco’s dictatorship. Both Bardem and Luis Garcia Berlanga (the other influential Spaniard who spearheaded 1950s cinematic transformation) rejected costume or militaristic dramas (which the regime gave instant approval) and designed social drama, in the vein of Italian neo-realist cinema (by early 1950s the style was already passe in Italy). In 1951, Bardem and Berlanga co-directed the ironically titled ‘The Happy Couple’, in which they used humor to detail the contemporary Spanish life. In 1953, Bardem co-wrote the satirical script for ‘Welcome Mr. Marshall’, which was critically hailed in the international festival circuits. In the same year, Bardem founded cinema journal ‘Objectivo’. It raised awareness about film criticism and informed readers about the films banned by the strict censors (two years later, the film journal itself was banned by the government).

 In 1955, Mr. Juan Antonio Bardem decided to write as well as direct Death of a Cyclist ('Muerte de un ciclista', 1955), a subversive social commentary loaded with melodrama. In the same year Bardem publicly denounced the state of Spanish cinema under Franco’s era. When Death of a Cyclist won the international critics’ prize at Cannes, Bardem was serving a brief prison term (on political grounds during the shooting of his next acclaimed feature Calle Mayor). Mr. Bardem was arrested several other times during Franco’s regime. One of vital achievements of the director is creation of Production Company called UNINCI. Although the production company was disbanded within a small period of time, it enabled the return of renowned auteur Luis Bunuel (from his exile in Mexico) to make the satirical masterpiece Viridiana (1961).

Death of a Cyclist was Bardem’s serious effort to push the boundaries of national cinema through the application of some of the American cinema aesthetics. It was equally influenced by otherwise polarizing neo-realism and Hitchcockian imagery. The movie opens with the titular incident – a speeding car runs over a man on a bicycle, in the middle of vast rural expanse. A man immediately jumps out of the car to help the severely injured cyclist, but the beautiful woman who accompanies him asks to leave the wounded guy. The man and woman named Juan (Alberto Closas) and Maria Jose (Lucian Bose) are having a secret affair and if discovered their social status may get affected. Maria is the wife of a wealthy industrialist Miguel (Otello Toso). While the emptiness of bourgeois life has made Maria to seek the arms of her old sweetheart Juan, she isn’t daring enough to leave the lavish lifestyle. Juan was an idealist and a soldier who fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil war. Now, he has gained some political security and a job (as professor) due to his powerful brother-in law.

Next day, Juan reads about the death of cyclist, published under a small column in the newspapers. The couple’s guilt of leaving the cyclist intensifies when a scornful pianist/art critic Rafa (Carlos Casaravilla) – a frequent guest at rich-people parties – insinuates that he watched the adulterous couple in the same rural road. It’s not clear whether Rafa watched the accident, but Maria Jose wants to protect herself before the issue becomes a big scandal. Juan makes a trip to visit the cyclist’s widow, residing in cramped quarters. An elderly neighbor lady informs that the widow has made the exhausting trip to Madrid to claim her husband’s insurance. The visit gradually leads to regeneration of Juan’s morals, who has been hollowed out by collective as well as individual failures. Now he wishes to confess his crime and liberate himself and he prods Maria Jose to do the same.

Director Bardem’s refined visual language tries to explore the nature of two different conflicts: an internal conflict – choosing between good and evil; and societal conflicts – huge division between poor working class and bourgeois society. The internal conflicts are brilliantly emphasized by juxtaposing inner feelings with distinct atmospheric surroundings. Bardem stages the central characters’ conflicts in well-realized backgrounds of a circus arena, an art exhibition or riotous party. Maria and Juan’s meetings are often filmed in close-up or over-the-shoulder shots, where the tight framing zeroes-in on their timid feelings. Bardem employs efficient, creative editing techniques (by Margarita Ochoa) to build suspense. Apart from the superb use of jump cuts and match cuts, two editing sequences stand-out: the class room and party scene. The indifferent action of Juan in the classroom was punctuated with long shots of classroom and increasingly tighter shots of Juan’s face. He is distressed after reading the news of cyclist death, which leads him to embarrass a good student in front of the entire class. Juan’s actions in the scene are seen as a subtle indictment of the elite members of Francoist Spain, who utterly disregarded the issues around them.

While the internal conflicts, accentuated using noir textures and Hitchcockian techniques, works well for the dramatic perspective, the social insights and politicized conversion of Juan are neither subtle nor very convincing. The early sequence when Juan visits the cyclist widow’s dilapidated apartment houses (uses a lot of high angle shots to indicate the impoverished's stature) was a scathing, subtle critique on the class-ridden society, created by fascist regime. But at other occasions, Bardem lays out class politics through blunt dialogues or overt symbolism. The conversations between Juan and the student Matilde is contrived in its nature, because Juan’s redemption is repeatedly insisted as the rebirth of communist ideologue. Apart from inclusion of some of these tiresome political commentaries, Bardem excels in relating the individual feelings of oppression and dread to the collective feelings of 1950s Spanish society. The ending was one of the other minor flaws in the narrative, as director Bardem was forced to ‘punish’ the adulterous women (to pass the censors).  



Death of a Cyclist (88 minutes) is a riveting indictment of the bourgeoisie class’ ego, greed, and spiritually empty opulence. Barring few blunt segments, the film’s sociopolitical commentary remains more relevant than ever.   

I’m a Killer [2016] – A Psychological Thriller Set in the Time of Deceit

Maciej Pieprzyca’s crime/drama I’m a Killer (‘Jestem Morderca', 2016) is based on the real-life hunt for notorious Polish serial killer known as ‘Zaglebie Vampire’, ‘The Silesian Vampire’ or simply ‘The Vampire’. Between 1964 and early 1970s, Zdzislaw Marchwicki was alleged to have brutally killed fourteen women between the towns of Zaglebie Daborowskie and Upper Silesia (south & southeastern part of Poland). Zdzislaw Marchwicki was caught in 1972, sentenced to death in 1975 (after a long trial), and was executed in 1977. During the trial and even after Marchwicki’s execution there were many doubts about whether he is the real ‘vampire’ killer or just framed by prosecution and police officers. Director Maciej Pieprzyca in 1998 made a TV documentary under the same title to explore the truth behind Marchwicki’s conviction. He depicted how there were lot of inadequacies in the investigation and how some evidence were totally fabricated. Now the director returns to the same premise, but strongly focuses on human & societal side of the incidents. Although the background material for I’m a Killer (2016) remains the same, Mr. Pieprzyca has introduced fictional elements to smooth out the narrative flow and thematic reflections.

The movie opens in 1977 in a mortuary with a man making face cast from a fresh corpse. In the background Polish radio announces about strong, prosperous, and thriving new Poland. This was the Polish era of silent media as news programs were crowded with communist regime's propaganda of success. Although the ‘vampire’ serial-killer doesn’t boast a direct political connection, this perceived image of an ideal state is repeatedly proven to have obstructed the truthful path in the case. The prologue is cut to September 1972, a  grey morning set in the backdrop of wet industrial wasteland. A woman lies in the ground, her face caved in. She is the tenth victim of the elusive serial killer. But the identity of this latest victim brings huge media and government attention. She happens to be niece of First Secretary of the Communist Party. The regional militia faced with immense pressure, names young lieutenant Janusz Jasinski (Mirosław Haniszewski) as the head of investigative team. The inexperienced Janusz feels he is up to the task, although would also be the  perfect scapegoat for militia if he fails.

Janusz is bestowed with largest team of detectives although apart from few rookie detectives most lack the sense of urgency to pursue the killer. Ambitious Janusz seeks the help of English criminologist’s guidance to psychologically profile the serial-killer, despite his superior’s disapproval. He also employs then ground-breaking technology of computers to narrow down the suspects. Janusz also announces a reward of one million zlotys for any one who could provide clues about the murderer. Yet his strong sense of duty doesn’t stop the killer’s lust for blood. The serial murderer breaks the skull of two more women, one in the park, right under the nose of a police sting operation. Eventually the police force zeroes-in on a bearded laborer Wieslaw Kalicki (Arkadiusz Jakubik) who initially seems to fit the killer’s profile. Kalicka’s unfaithful wife Lidia (Agata Kulesza) testifies that her husband burned some shoes at the house. Kalicka, apart from the thousand-yard stare and quick-temper, is characterized as a ardent football fan and a very loving father (he has three children).

Meanwhile, Janusz is hailed as the national hero for capturing ‘Vampire’. His celebrity status bestows him a new home, color TV, etc. Previously, Janusz, his wife and little son lived in an old apartment close to railway tracks which made the building shake whenever a train passes. Despite the rise in status, Janusz intuition says that Kalicks isn’t the serial-killer. His friend & colleague say they have got the man since the murders have totally stopped. Janusz only has circumstantial evidence and unreliable testimonies. Moreover, he couldn’t get a signed confession from Kalicka. The doubt that he hasn’t got the right man and the ensuing fear & guilt to face the consequences pushes Janusz into the dark side. He initiates an affair with a young hair-dresser. It naturally leads to strained relationship with his family. The members of the detective team are too divided in their opinion about Kalicka. Janusz will lose too much if he let the suspect off, but it would affects his conscience to send this seemingly innocent man to death. What follows is a distressing mental transformation, where Janusz is masterfully manipulated as well as metamorphose into a master manipulator.   

I’m a Killer starts off as the tale of serial-killer hunting, in the vein of Memories of Murder or Zodiac. There’s narrative thread dealing with police inefficiency in approaching serial murders and about the fog of lies that surrounded then Polish political situation. Movies like Citizen X and Memories of Murder similarly used serial-murders to explore the totalitarian societies’ loss of basic human dignity and empathy. But I’m a Killer soon distances itself from these specific notions of ineffective politicized hierarchy to depict an indelible portrait of a individual whose dilemmas could be seen as much from existential context than the historical context. However, director Maciej Pieprzyca states in an interview that the film seen from political viewpoint would highly resonate with Polish audience, since the country has again started to move towards the same totalitarianism dealt in the narrative. In fact, the protagonist's moral anxiety caused by morbid politics is compared to the early works of Kieslowski, Zanussi, and Agnieszka Holland.

Director Pieprzyca previous acclaimed feature Life Feels Good (2013) was an unsentimental yet uplifting tribute to human spirit. It revolved around an intelligent young man suffering from cerebral palsy. Life Feels Good enamored critics and movie-lovers, winning multiple-awards at Montreal and Gdynia Film Festival. It was second-feature film for Piperzyca who has praised for displaying artistic maturity so as to gracefully steer away from the pitfalls of sentimental melodrama. In his third feature, director Pieprzyca takes an entirely different path to exhibit the grim price one pays for upholding false sense of fulfillment and security. Furthermore, it is good that the director makes the protagonist Janusz a complex and ambiguous man. Janusz Janiski definitely surrenders himself to web of lies, but he doesn’t become a monster. There’s some remorse left in him and it was elegantly expressed in the final scene (with the glassy eyes of face cast staring back at him).  Mr. Pieprzyca’s creation of multilateral characters doesn’t just rest with Janusz. Even the secondary characters like Lidia – the crude wife of alleged vampire killer -- and Janusz’ friend Marek (Piotr Zulawski) isn’t trapped under one-dimensional writing. Renowned Polish actress Agata Kulesza brilliantly plays Lidia, conveying her own helplessness and hatred for husband in equal measures. Haniszewski adeptly portrays the transformation from hero to anti-hero. He effectively chronicles what it means for a remorseful person to trade morality & dignity for better social position. Arkadiusz Jakubik who played the father role in ‘Life Feels Good’ here dons the role of Kalicki. His poignant performance adds fuel to the perturbing morality play. 


I’m a Killer (117 minutes) starts off as a crime thriller and ends up being a stirring drama, addressing the timeless themes of morality and justice.   

Wakefield [2016] – An Underwhelming Study of White Collar Dad’s Angst Salvaged by Good Performances

The exaggerated and partly interesting central crisis in Robin Swicord’s Wakefield (2016) originates from two contrasting elements: privileged social position and strained familial relationship. Howard Wakefield lives in a posh suburban neighborhood, occupies the top position in a firm, blessed with a beautiful wife and two daughters. Viewed from the outside, it’s a life of ethereal beauty. Most importantly Mr. Howard possesses the luxury of thinking. But one has to wonder if thinking or the perception of one’s own self would always lead to soothing personal evolution. Our mind wanders hungers or yearns for something new, even though we are grateful for what we have. The suburban life despite its opulence remains airtight and eventually fails to quench the inherent existential hunger. Nothing we achieve or buy can guarantee to fill our inner void. This inward frustration or existential angst propels us to see the banality within life’s alleged beauty or see the precarious nature of the alleged precious things. Such realization has the power enough to make us go insane. Yet the inner power to confront existential angst can possibly freshen up our airtight atmosphere. Wakefield is the story about a narcissistic upper middle-class middle-aged male confronting the nothingness of urban life. He decides to ‘put his life on hold for a moment’ and see what he has left through the binoculars from a dark attic.

Wakefield is based on E.L. Doctorow’s 2008 short story (published in New Yorker) which was actually inspired (modern update) by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1835 short story of the same name. The entire story unfurls from the perspective of the protagonist – an obnoxious self-centered man who observes and reassesses the people around him from his self-imprisoned space. Enchantingly performed by Bryan Cranston, Howard Wakefield, one usual week-day leaves his Manhattan law firm, takes the train, and due to odd power outage arrives at home late and exhausted. He stands outside his home, annoyed by the calls from wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) and at the sight of a racoon loitering around the yard, before running up the attic of carrier-house garage. Wakefield chases off the racoon resting at the attic, watches his wife and two teenage daughters from the attic window. Diana remains tense (may be about her husband not returning the calls or due to the fight they had) and Wakefield decides to stay there for few minutes until things cool off. Alas, he sleeps the night there and wonders if Diana would believe his story (wouldn’t she think of him having an affair?). So he decides to delay his return until she goes off to her job. 

As time passes, Wakefield enjoys being a voyeur and narrates few details of the unpleasant squabble they have these days. Wakefield acknowledges that his jealousy is affecting their 15 year old marriage. Yet, he kind of blames Diana for looking beautiful or being (sexually) suggestive when talking with other men. Diana is clearly irritated by her husband’s absence and calls the police, doubting whether he has left her after harvesting all the money from the accounts. But the checks remain intact and car is inside the garage. The unexplainable disappearance of Wakefield raises genuine concern within Diana. For some odd reasons, Wakefield decides to continue his experimentation: to remain hidden in the garage attic. He forages through neighborhood’s garbage bin for food, making the odd malevolent or funny remarks about his strained relationship with Diana; and about the other stoic family members or colleagues. 
Before long, his hair and beard grows long. At one point, he walks around the town like a homeless guy without fear of being recognized. Throughout it all, Wakefield spies on his wife, every male member entering their abode is a potential nemesis to make him a cuckold. Subsequently, he narrates how he won over (or conquered) Diana from his friend Dirk Morrison. Months pass by and the endless humiliation and loneliness seem to free him from his envious 'self'. He contemplates how his cynicism towards the familial life inflict sense of entrapment that's entirely his own making. Nevertheless he seems to have gone too far and remains in sync with wild natural world. Can he return back to the ‘normal’ life? Most importantly, will this absurd experiment bring unbridled compassion for his wife and daughters? Has he become wise or lost his self to madness?   

The unpardonable problem with the film lies in the conception of its protagonist. He is a man with zero ability to grasp others’ human experiences. He neither showcases iota of empathy towards his wife nor feels guilt about his prolonged experiment. What’s more shocking is Wakefield’s unbelievable level of indifference towards the young daughters. Director Swicord’s visual flair is commendable as much as her emotional grasp of the material is irritable. She definitely provides some food for thought but from emotional perspective, the narrative is muddled or terribly hollow. We never understand Wakefield’s conflicting emotions or the man’s complex feelings. He is simply embroiled inside his toxic masculinity and never comes out of it even after the frequent bouts of revelatory episodes. Does Swicord’s movie intend to address this deep-seated aspect of toxic masculinity? If it is, the director/writer has done bungled job at it. There are strains of Wakefield’s existential angst which I can definitely relate to, but overall he comes across as a manipulative egocentric guy not worth the shot at redemption. The guy’s prism of self-loathing doesn’t allow room for any humane feelings.  As the final punchline of critic Derek Smith’s review (in Slant magazine) says, “Howard isn’t a mystery worth solving. He’s just an asshole”. Still, there are two things I loved in the film: Swicord’s graceful handling of the brief friendship between mentally challenged youngsters (from neighbor’s house) and Howard; and then the brilliant performances. Bryan Cranston definitely steers the unsatisfying character study into watchable territory. Jennifer Garner imbues her under-written character with grace and honesty (if only she was given little more leeway!).