Since the self-quarantine, I have been unexpectedly uninterested in watching contemporary movies, except for those I’m tasked with reviewing. And it doesn’t take a shrink to explain this indifference: With the present currently so chaotic and scary, films of the past feel safe, perhaps offering an implicit testament to society’s continuity, while reminding me of correlating events in my life at the time that I saw them.
But I generally haven’t been craving warm and cuddly movies, as my comfort watching has been dominated by hard, sometimes nihilistic crime cinema. Below are some of my recent preoccupations, if you wish to follow my masochistic bread crumbs.
“Killing Them Softly” (Andrew Dominik)
Dominik’s 2012 crime film, an adaptation of a novel by George Higgins, blends a tale of Boston gangsters killing one another with a rumination on the 2008 American recession. The presidential election proceeds on television while dogs eat figurative dogs, and so the point, which is quite pointed, is that capitalism is a rat race on all levels. Politicians speak in distracting euphemisms, while criminals understand the true mercenary heart of our society. There’s a retrospective element of course, as Dominik asks: how different is 2012 from 2008?
“Killing Them Softly” is more ghoulishly resonant now than it was upon release. Dominik’s hand is heavy, as he doesn’t seem to understand that the American crime genre is inherently critical of capitalism, without his editorializing footnotes. But the film’s grimy, nearly expressionistic atmosphere is haunting, and the cast is astonishing, especially Brad Pitt as a spectral, cucumber-cool assassin, and James Gandolfini as a bloated, self-pitying, alcoholic wreck of a man. (Available on Netflix.)
“King of New York” (Abel Ferrara)
Over the last decade, Ferrara has pushed himself personally and aesthetically, creating some of his greatest work, from “Welcome to New York” to “4:44 Last Day on Earth” to the still unreleased “Tommaso.” The 1990 crime film “King of New York” is less introspective than these projects, suggesting a bridge between Ferrara’s early exploitation films and his not-especially-rewarding flirtation with mainstream cinema in the mid-’90s. This film perhaps purposefully suggests an ’80s-era music video, with stylized lighting, glaring jewelry and guns, and frequent promises of sex and violence.
The plot is reed thin: A gangster played by Christopher Walken is released from prison and kills a variety of people to regain control of his turf. The film feels as if it’s composed of almost nothing but scenes of killing, which are punctuated with sequences in which a great collection of actors curse and threaten one another. Things gets repetitive, but Ferrara eventually stages a sleek car chase and shootout, and the violence gains a satirical dimension.
Paring “King of New York” down to shards of incident, Ferrara strips the narrative of preachiness, understanding the blood lust that truly drives such narratives. The iconic Walken is viscerally complemented by Wesley Snipes, David Caruso, Lawrence Fishburne and Steve Buscemi. (Available on Amazon Prime.)
“The Long Goodbye” (Robert Altman)
In this 1973 masterpiece, Altman shakes up the private-eye genre, informing it with his legendarily intuitive, diaphanous style. Elliott Gould plays Phillip Marlowe less as a hard case, in the key of Humphrey Bogart, than as an earnest hipster who comes to learn disconcerting secrets about his friends and neighbors. This is an intimate film, yet the adultery, murder and betrayals that drive the plot have a political dimension, as Marlowe’s awakening suggests Vietnam-era disillusionment. And the extraordinary Sterling Hayden has one of the great death scenes in cinema, disappearing into ocean waves that Altman films in a primordial, unmooring long take. (Available on Amazon Prime.)
“The Housemaid” (Kim Ki-young)
This 1960 thriller is an agonizing hothouse fantasy of a family’s destruction. A housemaid (Lee Eun-shim) is hired by a composer (Kim Jin-kyu) to help care for his new two-story house, of which she gradually seizes control, sleeping with the husband and turning the wife (Ju Jeung-ryu) and their children into virtual prisoners. Fashioning a suffocating, emotionally expressive aesthetic, the director mounts a parable of the hypocrisy of Korean gender norms, particularly mining male terror of women. “The Housemaid” would also prove to be hugely influential to Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite.” (Available on the Criterion Channel.)
“Nobody’s Fool” (Robert Benton)
Even I need something friendly now and then, and Benton’s 1994 adaptation of Richard Russo’s acclaimed novel fits the bill. Set in a wintry northern New York village, this film is reassuringly small, featuring a cast of amiable, somewhat cuddly characters whom Benton and his actors nevertheless invest with empathetic and lifelike detail. The standout is Paul Newman as Sully, an intelligent and charismatic local legend who never amounted to much apart from walking out on his family. Newman has never been more personable, which is saying something, but his performance isn’t sentimental. He invests Sully with a thread of regret and resentment, offering a master class in restraint and implication. (Available on Amazon Prime.)