Before ‘The Hurt Locker,’ Kathryn Bigelow Gave Us These Movies

Kathryn Bigelow photo

You only need to see one film directed by Kathryn Bigelow to know that few, if any, other directors can create such an unrelentingly intense movie going experience the way she can. Bigelow didn’t win the Best Director Oscar for “The Hurt Locker” because she is a woman. She won it because she made a war movie which was unlike many we saw at the time. She gave us yet another intense war movie with “Zero Dark Thirty” which looks at the decade long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. It won the New York Film Critics’ Awards for Best Film and Best Director, and it maintains a strong level of intensity from start to finish.

But the truth is Bigelow has always been a great director, and her talent behind the camera has never been in doubt. Whether it’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Point Break” or “Detroit,” her films keep us on the edge of our seats throughout and barely give us a moment to breathe. If you enjoyed these movies, here are some of her other efforts which deserve your attention.

The Loveless movie poster

“The Loveless”

This 1982 film marked Bigelow’s feature film directorial debut, and she co-directed it with Monty Montgomery, the actor who played the Cowboy in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive.” “The Loveless” stars Willem Dafoe and tells the story of a motorcycle gang that makes a pit stop in a small southern town while on their way to Daytona. Once they arrive, however, trouble starts brewing when the gang starts fancying the female locals.

Blue Underground, which released a special edition of “The Loveless” on DVD, called it “the thinking man’s biker movie.” Whether you agree with this assessment or not, Bigelow does give us many beautiful images of leather and chrome, and she does show a love for the look of neon lights as well.

Blue Steel movie poster

“Blue Steel”

Bigelow’s 1989 action thriller next because was the first movie of hers which I watched, and I was absolutely stunned by her unflinching style of direction. The always terrific Jamie Lee Curtis stars as Megan Turner, a rookie New York City police officer who shoots and kills a grocery store robber (played by Tom Sizemore) on her first day. But while staring in shock at what she has done, New York Stock Exchange trader Eugene Hunt (the late Ron Silver) grabs the suspect’s gun and uses it to go on a psychotic killing spree.

What looks like your average police thriller ends up turning out to be a far more violent and unsettling movie than you might expect. Silver gives us one of the craziest and most unhinged psychopaths ever to appear on the silver screen, and Bigelow gives the action sequences a thrill as vicious as it is visceral. Regardless of “Blue Steel” having a plot which has been used over and over, it still stays with me years after having seen it as Bigelow doesn’t shy away from the violent natures of Curtis’ and Silver’s characters.

Near Dark movie poster

“Near Dark”

Forget the “Twilight” films, this is a real vampire movie! Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) gets up close and personal with the beautiful Mae (Jenny Wright) only to be bitten on the neck by her. It soon turns out Mae is a bloodsucking vampire who travels from town to town with her extended vampire family which includes actors Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, Bill Paxton and Joshua John Miller. They end up taking Caleb in once he has become one of them, and this forces him to make some tough decisions which he may not be able to live with.

“Near Dark” was a box office disappointment upon its release, but it has since gained a large and deserved cult following. Bigelow, along with cinematographer Adam Greenberg, gives the film such a beautiful look which is aided by one of the many great Tangerine Dream film scores of the 1980s. Its best scene comes when the vampire gang visits a bar in the middle of nowhere, and Bigelow does a literally bloody good job in how she stages it.

Strange Days movie poster

“Strange Days”

Like “Near Dark,” “Strange Days” was a box office failure which has since gained a cult following over the years. Co-written by Bigelow’s ex-husband James Cameron, it stars Ralph Fiennes as a former cop who deals in SQUID equipment, devices which record images taken directly from an individual’s cerebral cortex. When those images are played back, it allows the user to experience a person’s memory as if they are living it themselves.

This concept allows Bigelow to stage some exhilarating point of view action sequences which must have been insanely difficult to choreograph and put together. While it may be tempting to compare “Strange Days” to other futuristic movies which show a major city in peril, this film really has its own unique look. And like your typical Bigelow movie, you don’t watch it as much as you experience it.

K19 The Widowmaker movie poster

“K-19: The Widowmaker”

Okay, I know many had issues with Harrison Ford’s and Liam Neeson’s accents and of the liberties taken with the movie’s true story, but I still think “K-19: The Widowmaker” is a far better movie than people give it credit for. It’s no “Das Boot,” but Bigelow mines a lot of raw emotion out of the story of Russia’s first nuclear submarine. This comes about when the ship’s reactor malfunctions to where it will explode if the temperature to continues to climb, and members of the crew are dispatched to work on the reactor while wearing chemical suits which do far too little to protect them from severe radiation sickness (“they might as well wear raincoats,” says Neeson’s character).

Watching these young men essentially sacrifice their own lives in order to prevent World War III is devastating to witness, and Bigelow makes you respect their selfless act to where you cannot help but be on the verge of tears while watching them go into a room they will not come out of in one piece.

Kathryn Bigelow

Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is Wonderfully Old-Fashioned

Murder on the Orient Express 2017 movie poster

Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express” marks a return of sorts for the actor and director. His last few movies as a director, “Thor,” “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” and “Cinderella,” had him embracing all the cinematic tools available to him to where his unique talents threatened to be squashed as he began to look like any other filmmaker making blockbuster motion pictures. But with this latest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel, we see him returning to his theatre roots as he directs an all-star cast to excellent performances while simultaneously playing the lead role of Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The late Leonard Nimoy said he never directed another “Star Trek” movie after “The Voyage Home” because acting and directing at the same time was just too much work. Branagh, however, makes it all look like a walk in the park, and after all these years I am astonished that he can make it look so easy.

Branagh is fantastic as Hercule, and he makes this classic character into a man of many splendors. We first see him being very picky about being served two hard-boiled eggs, both of which need to be the same size for him to eat. This scene almost makes him looks like a food snob, but then we see him solve a crime at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Hercule brings up three holy men to the front of the crowd, and immediately we think one of them is guilty, and that, once the guilty man is revealed, people will find their prejudices to be justified. But instead, Hercule implicates another man with the crime, and it shows how he sees sins as being universal and not relegated to a particular group or ethnicity. From there, we know this man will not be bound by prejudice when it comes to solving a crime.

Hercule just wants to take a holiday aboard the Orient Express, and we see him take great joy in observing perfectly baked foods as well in reading Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” which he laughs at constantly. But detectives like him can only stay on vacation for so long as the scent of crime is never far from him. And, as the movie’s title implies, a murder is committed which only he can solve with his unique set of skills. This will not be an easy case, but Hercule is quick to tell us, “If it were easy, I would not be famous.”

“Murder on the Orient Express” has been adapted several times, the most famous adaptation being Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film which, like this one, features an all-star cast. I have not seen any of the previous versions nor have I read Christie’s novel, so I am coming into this one a fresh newbie. From the start, I expected Branagh’s film to be an old-fashioned whodunit, but as it went on, I was surprised to see the story deal with themes Shakespeare wrote about time and time again. It becomes less about who the murderer is and more about the sins we allow ourselves to live with and of the different kinds of punishment we are forced to endure. Once the murderer is revealed, the story doesn’t stop there.

Branagh brings together a terrific group of actors who sink their teeth into roles which, on the surface, might seem underwritten and one-dimensional, but each actor does excellent work in creating an inner life for their characters to where their eyes tell us more than their mouths do. Even as they work on perfecting their poker faces, something which Hercule has them all beat at, their eyes betray a truth which can no longer stay buried.

Johnny Depp shows up as Edward Ratchett, an unsavory individual who becomes the victim of the story. Seeing Depp getting killed off early on in a movie is guaranteed to please many audience members who have had their fill of him, and I don’t just mean Amber Heard. I’m just glad Branagh cast him in this role instead of as Hercule. Depp would have just resurrected his Guy LaPointe character from “Tusk” and “Yoga Hosers” if he played Hercule, or perhaps he would have given us another variation on Charlie Mortdecai as, like Hercule, that character sports a truly extravagant mustache. All the same, Depp is wonderful in the role and makes Ratchett into a despicable character whose nasty fate deserves a thorough investigation.

I loved watching Penelope Cruz as Pilar Estravados as her demeanor presents the character as one with dark intentions as well as someone who has suffered far too much pain and tragedy in life. It took me a bit to recognize Josh Gad who plays Ratchett’s right-hand man, Hector MacQueen, and he is excellent as a man who has compromised his values once too often. Daisy Ridley, whom we cannot wait to see again as Rey in the next “Star Wars” movie, matches Branagh scene for scene as Mary Debenham, a lady who refuses to be investigated by Hercule for a protracted amount of time, but even her poker face falls apart before she realizes it. And you can always depend on Derek Jacobi, Dame Judi Dench and Willem Dafoe to turn in excellent performances as they rarely, if ever, have let us down.

But one performance I want to single out in particular is Michelle Pfeiffer’s who portrays Caroline Hubbard. 2017 has been a big year for Pfeiffer as she has emerged from what seems like an infinitely long hiatus and has given unforgettable and scene-stealing performances in Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” and Barry Levinson’s “The Wizard of Lies.” The same goes with her performance here as she takes the stereotypical divorced socialite and renders her into a complex figure of tragedy whose armor is harder for Hercule to break through. Pfeiffer has always been a fantastic actress, and her performance as Caroline reminded me of this and of how long her career has lasted. She has a show-stopping moment towards the movie’s end (you’ll know it when you see it), and it is further proof of how she has never been just another pretty face in Hollywood.

Branagh has directed “Murder on the Orient Express” as a theatre piece, and it is clear to me how much attention he has given the actors here. Having said that, he also gives this adaption a beautifully cinematic look. Along with his collaborators, director of photography Haris Zambarloukos and composer Patrick Doyle, he makes this film feel wonderfully old-fashioned, and it seems like forever since I have watched a movie which evokes this feeling. It should also be noted how he shot this movie on 65mm film which suits the material perfectly, and seeing those cigarette burns appear on the screen was a very welcome sight for me.

Of course, not everything about “Murder on the Orient Express” is perfect. The movie does drag a bit towards the end, and the story is at times a bit hard to follow. It also pales in comparison to another mystery movie Branagh directed back in the 1990’s, “Dead Again.” Still, it proves to be a wonderfully entertaining motion picture which reminded me of his best work even while not quite equaling it. The ending draws our attention to another Agatha Christie classic novel which implies, if this movie does well, we could be seeing the beginning of a franchise. I do hope this happens as Branagh has put together a wonderfully entertaining motion picture which begs for a continuation. Whether he can come up with a follow up remains to be seen as the world of movies remains dominated by endless superhero/comic book franchises.

I also have to say the mustache Branagh sports in this movie is very impressive. Lord knows how long it took for him to grow and keep so pointy. Many other actors would have been easily upstaged by such a mustache, but not Branagh.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Platoon’

Platoon movie poster

I think its use of “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber is one of the reasons I stayed away from watching “Platoon” for the longest time. It still is one of the saddest pieces of music I have ever heard, although it would later be eclipsed by the even more emotionally devastating “Symphony No. 3” (subtitled “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”) by Henryk Górecki which Peter Weir used to powerful effect in “Fearless.” Plus, the way the violence in “Platoon” was described to me by friends at school, like when a soldier gets his arms blown off by a bomb, filled my mind with horrible images which had no business infecting my mind at such a young age.

It took buying the 25th anniversary edition of “Platoon” on Blu-ray for me to finally sit down and watch it. I hadn’t even seen the movie yet, and here I am buying it at Costco for $11.99 By then, I had seen many Oliver Stone movies like “Born On the Fourth of July,” “JFK,” and “Natural Born Killers,” so I was long overdue to give this Best Picture winner a look.

Before “Platoon,” I had seen “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” and “Full Metal Jacket” which viewed the Vietnam War from different perspectives. The one thing they had in common was they were directed by filmmakers who had never served in Vietnam. Stone, however, had served there, so “Platoon” is largely autobiographical for him. As a result, this is probably the first truly realistic depiction of the Vietnam War anyone could have ever hoped to see in a movie.

Charlie Sheen stars as Chris Taylor, and it’s interesting watching him here as this was long before his days on “Two and a Half Men.” Taylor serves as the narrator and most relatable character as, like him, we are coming into this war fresh-faced, naïve and innocent. The first scene where Taylor comes off a plane with a bunch of newbies is an omen of what is to come. Seeing body bags filled with fallen soldiers and crossing paths with those men who have seen the war up close quickly gives you a good idea of what Taylor will probably end up looking like at the movie’s end.

Sheen is perfectly cast as he makes Taylor go from being a newbie to an experienced combat veteran in little time. It’s a shame Sheen has since pissed away a good portion of his talent to where he’s pretty much playing a version of himself as some drunken womanizer, be it on a television show or a movie. His work here is a strong reminder of how good he can be as he is utterly believable in a role no one would cast him in today.

Seeing Taylor struggle on through the Vietnamese jungle after the opening scene is a quick indication of how unprepared he is for combat. Like many wars Americans have fought, it was on the soil of another country they were completely unfamiliar with. We see how this puts them at an immediate disadvantage as they look completely exhausted and depleted even at the start of the day.

When it comes to Vietnam, Taylor makes it clear he is a unique case as he tells everyone he dropped out of college to volunteer and serve in the war. This makes him seem like part of a generation raised to believe fighting in a war is both noble and infinitely patriotic, something to be proud of. Taylor also feels that not only poor kids should be sent to fight instead of the rich, but he soon learns the truths about war, one of which is given to him by King (Keith David) who tells him something which resonates strongly even today: “You got to be rich in the first place to think like that. Everybody know, the poor are always being fucked over by the rich. Always have, always will.”

The other two performances worth noting are given by Willem Dafoe as Sergeant Elias and Tom Berenger as Sergeant Barnes. Both figure prominently in Taylor’s tour of duty, and even he says these two were fighting for his soul. Dafoe is mesmerizing as the idealistic soldier who sees America’s involvement in Vietnam ending badly. The Christ-like pose he gets in, whether its holding a machine gun over his shoulders or as he runs from the Vietnamese soldiers, is no mistake. Elias ends up dying for the sins of his fellow soldiers while doing his best to protect them.

Berenger’s performance as Barnes ranks among his best ever. He succeeds in getting inside the head of someone who has been shot at so many times to where they are forever psychologically altered. Having seen death up close, Barnes acts as if he has surpassed it. In some ways, Berenger doesn’t need those makeup scars to show you how many firefights his character has been in as watching him walk through the jungle, completely unaffected by explosions going off around him as if he were Colonel Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now,” is more than enough proof of this.

Stone makes you feel the blood, sweat, tears and exhaustion these soldiers experience, and it’s all so vivid to where we come out of “Platoon” feeling like war veterans ourselves. It leaves all those other movies which make war seem like fun to utter shame. Coming from a filmmaker who has seen this particular war up close, we cannot deny the authenticity he puts on display.

“Platoon” also captures how quickly people can lose their moral bearings in the face of war. The scene in the village is by far the movie’s most unnerving moment as we watch Taylor and the other soldiers get overcome by their boiling anger and hatred. What’s so horrifying is that while you would like to believe you would have acted differently than they did, there’s no way you can be sure if you haven’t been in combat. The line between soldier and killer gets seriously blurred here, and it’s not hard to understand why.

Before filming began, the cast was treated to an intensive military training course under the tutelage of former Marine Captain Dale Dye who also served in Vietnam. They were made to dig foxholes and subjected to forced marches and nighttime ambushes which utilized explosions. This succeeded in breaking them down, and you can see and feel the weariness in them throughout. It more than adds to the sheer realism we see here.

There’s no victory to be found in “Platoon,” only death and destruction on both sides of the conflict. The movie gets at the truth of war which Danny DeVito talked about in “The War of the Roses” when he said, “There is no winning! There’s only degrees of losing!”

The violence and death portrayed may not seem quite as visceral as it did when the movie first came out. There have been many other war movies since like “Saving Private Ryan” which featured scenes of such brutal violence that no other filmmaker could possibly match. Plus, we all know about the Vietnam War in general and big a mistake it was for America for many years now. Still, “Platoon” is nothing less than powerful as its vision of the craziness and insanity of war is impossible to shake once you have seen it.

The Vietnam War may be a thing of the past, but the lessons we learned from it still need to be taught over and over again. America keeps fighting wars which, whether necessary or not, continually overstay their welcome and leave a lot of people feeling angry and betrayed. Oliver Stone certainly understands that, and he makes “Platoon” into a movie which shows the damage of war and why we can’t just let the past be the past.

* * * * out of * * * *

A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man movie poster

I have not read any John le Carre novels as of yet, but I have seen many movies based on them. Whether it’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (be it the miniseries or the film), “The Constant Gardner,” “The Tailor of Panama” or “The Russia House,” all of Carré’s stories deal with people who have seen it all and have long since been burned out by the possibility of changing the way people exist in the world. Since he was once an employee of the British intelligence agency MI6, Carré’s books generally deal with spies who are not like the ones we remember from James Bond or Jason Bourne movies. Instead, these are spies who inhabit a morally duplicitous world they have to struggle in even as it tears away at who they once were. They claim to be doing this work for the sake of peace, but after a while, you begin to wonder how much they believe this as they soon look like they are kidding themselves.

A Most Wanted Man” is the latest Carré cinematic adaptation, and it is a perfect example of the kind of spies he has become famous for writing about. This film has also taken on an added importance as it features the very last lead performance from the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman who plays Günter Bachmann, the weariest looking spy who has ever walked the face of the earth. Only Hoffman could have inhabited such a worn-out character and make him so endlessly fascinating as Günter goes through this movie looking like he barely has a pulse.

This movie starts off with a note saying the German port city of Hamburg is where Mohammed Atta and his collaborators planned the September 11th attacks. The fact Atta was able to plan the attacks without being caught beforehand was due to failures in intelligence among other things and, as a result, the intelligence operatives continue to work as hard as they can to make sure this never happens again. The story takes place over a decade after 9/11, and it doesn’t take too long to see how these characters still treat the horrific day as if it just happened yesterday.

Günter is the leader of an anti-terrorism team which seeks to develop sources within the Islamic community in the hopes of getting leads on high-profile subjects. His team eventually finds one in Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a half-Chechen, half-Russian who has just immigrated to Hamburg illegally after suffering torture and imprisonment which has made him look like a walking corpse. At the same time, he is also on the verge of claiming an inheritance worth millions in Euros. The question is, will any of this inheritance go towards funding terrorist groups, or will Issa make sure it goes to who needs it the most?

“A Most Wanted Man” was directed by Anton Corbijn, a Dutch filmmaker who previously directed George Clooney in another spy movie called “The American,” and he is not out to give us the typical spy thriller designed to give the audience a potent adrenaline rush. The spies here are all about playing mind games with their prey as well as with those from another country than they are in getting into gun fights and car chases. This might frustrate some viewers who prefer their spy movies to exhilarate like few other cinematic experiences can, but Corbijn is intent on taking his time with this story at a pace which befits the le Carre novel it is based on. For those of you who have seen “The American,” this should not come as a surprise.

Seriously, not enough can be said about Hoffman’s performance. You never really catch him acting here. Hoffman simply becomes Günter right before our eyes, and he makes you feel his character’s weariness for all it’s worth. Watching Hoffman is heartbreaking because he really does give us a master class in acting here, and this sadly is one of the last times we will ever get to see him do that.

Among the highlights of “A Most Wanted Man” are the scenes Hoffman has with Robin Wright who plays CIA agent Martha Sullivan. Currently on a critical high from her work on the Netflix series “House of Cards,” Wright matches Hoffman scene for scene as these two play a mental game of chess, trying to guess what the other is thinking without revealing too much of themselves in the process. Looking into the eyes of both these actors, you can tell how much fun they have sparring with one another. When they tell one another they are trying to make the world a safer place, you can smell the deceitful sarcasm dripping from their mouths as their jobs now force them to become competitors over nabbing the next big terrorist suspect.

Granted, Hoffman’s German accent is a little off-putting at first, but we do get used to it eventually just as we do with the one Rachel McAdams pulls off. McAdams portrays Annabel Richter, a deeply passionate human rights attorney who does her best to protect Issa from unnecessary prosecution. However, when Annabel is put in a position where she is forced to betray those closest to her, McAdams makes you feel her character’s agony without even having to use words to express it. As for Willem Dafoe who plays bank manager Tommy Brue, you can never really go wrong with him in anything he’s in.

“A Most Wanted Man” is, at times, a little hard to follow to where you may come out of it thinking the plot was a little too convoluted for its own good, but most viewers should be able to get the gist of the story. The pace is also a little too slow at times although things do pick up before the end. Whatever the case, it is definitely worth seeing for the performances, especially the ones given by Hoffman and Wright. It will be hard to escape the bittersweet feeling this movie leaves you with as this is one of Hoffman’s last, and I came out of it wondering if we would ever see an actor like him ever again; one who doesn’t look like a movie star but whose talents have more than earned him the right to be one.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Antichrist’ Shakes You Like Few Movies Can

Antichrist movie poster

This review was written in 2009.

It’s been over a week now since I saw the latest cinematic provocation from Danish film director Lars Von Trier. What I witnessed in “Antichrist” is still on my mind, and it took me a long time to process all I saw. I found myself talking to complete strangers about it as we each tried to interpret the movie on our own terms. Some found it too long which had me wondering if they ever saw Von Trier’s “Dogville” which was three hours long (“Antichrist” is only 109 minutes). Some just didn’t get the story. Either way you look at it, “Antichrist” is to 2009 what Michael Haneke’s remake of “Funny Games” was to 2008; an immensely polarizing film people will have passionate disagreements on. I found it to be a completely mesmerizing experience which had me transfixed throughout its entire length.

“Antichrist” stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg in performances which don’t deserve Oscars as much as they do Purple Hearts. They play a married couple who are referred to as He and She, and the movie opens with them making love while their baby boy plays in his room. There is even a hardcore insertion added to the sex scene which may seem inappropriate to some, but it adds a raw carnality to a moment which makes it all the more immediate. Their lovemaking becomes equated with death as their son goes up to an open window, fascinated with the falling snowflakes, and ends up plummeting to his death. From there, “Antichrist” follows them as they cope with their son’s tragic death, but things get even worse. And just when you think they have hit rock bottom, things getting even worse than that. Yup, it’s that kind of movie.

It really helps to go into “Antichrist” with no expectations and an open mind because it will not be anything you predict it will be. So much attention has been paid to the unnervingly graphic moments to where you think Von Trier is trying to court fans of “Saw” and “Hostel.” But anyone expecting this will walk out of this movie horribly disappointed. “Antichrist” does not exist merely to shock viewers with copious amounts of blood and gore. Instead, Von Trier seeks to challenge the things you believe in, and he dares you to look beyond the darkness of our own human natures to get a glimpse of what he implies.

An ominous hum runs throughout this movie in the same way it runs through many of David Lynch’s films (“Lost Highway” and “Blue Velvet” among others). Dafoe’s character is a therapist, and his conflict of interest is clear from the start as he questions how his wife’s psychiatrist is treating her. The wife disagrees, telling him he shouldn’t get involved, but his love for her overrules everything else, including common sense. Almost immediately, he makes her flush her medication down the toilet, causing her a frightening amount of emotional upheaval. He then takes his wife to a cabin in the woods, which is ironically called “Eden” (it’s anything but). She finds this is the place which scares her the most, and he decides it will be the perfect place to try exposure therapy. By facing her greatest fears, he feels this will get her past the tragic loss of their son.

You would think Dafoe’s character has his wife’s best interests at heart, but the exposure therapy only exacerbates her grief and despair. We later discover her hold on reality is tenuous at best when He finds She has been working on a thesis regarding gynocide, which itself is a take on the word gendercide; referring to the systematic killings of a specific sex, in this case, women. He comes to see She has embraced the witchcraft of women and that they are seen as evil beings, something he quickly tries to disprove to her. But having made her emotional state even worse than it already is, He sees her grief has made her justify the punishment She inflicts on herself as She lets herself believe it is her fault their son died.

Von Trier has long been accused of rampant misogyny in his films, and yes, he does seem to put his actresses through an emotional wringer most of the time. But while “Antichrist” deals with misogynistic themes, it is not a misogynistic movie. I’m sure many will make a good that it is, but the film could also be interpreted as empowering in some respects. “Antichrist” does call into question how the female sex is viewed as nurturing and caring while the male sex is seen as stronger. But for the last half of the movie, even though She has gone completely mad, She seems to have all the power and proves to be anything but weak and helpless.

All of this led me to a big question when I walked out of the movie theater in my emotionally shaken state; who is the antichrist of the story? Many may see it as the Gainsbourg character in how She embraces the sexist teachings which She has been studying, and of how the stick figure in the movie’s title seems to look like a woman. But I felt this illustration was not gender specific in its design, so this makes it subject to interpretation. Neither character is of sound mind throughout the movie, and both deal with their soul-sucking grief in very unhealthy ways.

Nature itself is a huge character in this movie, and the majority of the action takes place there. The house which sits upon “Eden” is much like the one we have seen from the “Evil Dead” movies so you can see in advance how bad things will happen there. Maybe nature is the antichrist of because out there, the laws we live under don’t exist in the same way, and there is no order to be found in anything. “Antichrist” almost ends up being like “Deliverance” but without the demented hillbillies. No one is put in cages. This all leads to the moment where Dafoe encounters the fox who takes the time from disemboweling itself to utter the words which define the film, “Chaos reigns!”

This scene apparently led to much laughter in the audience at Cannes when “Antichrist” was shown there, but it is the most truthful and frightening of moments in the entire film. Whether or not you believe Gainsbourg’s character when She says “nature is Satan’s church,” it is clear the relationship between these two, let alone their state of minds, are descending into total chaos. Many movies show how nature can force us to discover the animalistic parts of ourselves, the parts we would rather not know about, and “Antichrist” is no exception.

I took some time to look at the definition of the word antichrist and what it really meant. According to Christianity, the antichrist is one who fulfills Biblical prophecies concerning an adversary of Christ while resembling him in a deceptive manner. Clearly, someone of sin, he or she opposes against anything that is worshiped, claiming divine authority. Most notably, this person also works all kinds of counterfeit miracles and signs. With this in mind, I can’t help but think Dafoe’s character is the antichrist of this movie, for he has taken his wife’s well-being into his hands thinking his experience trumps that of a younger doctor. He rails against all which is medically sound, and he subjects his wife to unnecessary torment despite his intent to help her. If he really thinks exposure therapy is the way to handle things, I wonder how it worked with his other patients who were not family related.

Much of what we see in “Antichrist” is open to interpretation. Von Trier has not gone out of his way to try and justify what he has shown us. There is a story at work here, but its meanings will be different for those who dare to see it. Watching this movie reminded me of when I was a student at UC Irvine and saw a production of David Mamet’s “Oleanna.” It was a play which focused on a meeting between a male professor and one of his female students whom he gave a bad grade to. At the end of it, no one could decide who was more at fault. It frustrated many because the play seemed to be devoid of a straight answer, but this was the point. One made the play so great was how thought provoking it was. It made you think about what you just saw, and it expanded how you saw certain things and maybe gave you a deeper understanding of the world around you more than ever before.

“Antichrist” gave me this same kind of experience, and I can’t remember the last time I had one like it. Most movies today don’t challenge you out of fear of offending too many paying customers they depend on, so as emotionally draining as this film is, it still feels s like a victory something this artful actually got made. It is meant to shake you, and that it did to me. Many will hate the film, but for those filmgoers who are far more adventurous in what they watch, I think there is much they can appreciate.

Is there anything audiences can come to agreement on with “Antichrist”? Well, one thing’s sure; you cannot deny the astonishing beauty of the cinematography on display. The director of photography is Anthony Dod Mantle, the same cinematographer who shot “Slumdog Millionaire.” The opening prologue stands out as one of the most beautiful pieces of film I have ever seen. The juxtaposition of He and She making love while their son ends up falling from his bedroom window is as lovely as it is horrifically tragic. Mantle also gives us some incredible dreamlike shots which capture the beauty of nature while hinting at the inescapable darkness lingering beneath the surface. I somehow doubt that I will see more beautiful imagery in any other movie I see for the rest of 2009.

What else can we agree on about “Antichrist”? Ah yes, the performances! Both Dafoe and Gainsbourg rise up to the unthinkable challenges Von Trier lays at their feet. What they both do here almost seems criminal were they not such willing participants. Both actors are known for taking big risks, so this makes them well suited to take on material so emotionally naked.

Gainsbourg won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, and she clearly deserved it. Ironically enough, she also appeared in a production of David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” and she played the title character in the 1996 version of “Jane Eyre.” Her opening intro from “The Cement Garden” was used in one of my all-time favorite Madonna songs, “What It Feels Like for A Girl.” Throughout her career, she has disappeared into her characters with an abandon you don’t find in many other actors. Her performance in “Antichrist” shows her at the peak of her powers, but I’m sure there is greater work we will see from her in the future.

But let us not leave out Dafoe who can add his role here to the many great ones he has played. His character is a witness to an unspeakable despair, and he does not hide the fact his character deals with this despair in ways which are selfish more than anything else. Dafoe’s career has spanned several decades, and it includes controversial movies like “Mississippi Burning” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Dafoe’s mission and intent as an actor has never been to simply get under your skin, but to explore the darker parts of humanity so we can better understand them. He is unhindered by the trappings of stardom and glamor, and he continues to take chances with movies like this one.

Von Trier may not be “the greatest director in the world” as he proclaims whenever given the opportunity, but he is certainly one of the best directors working today. Watching his movies, you can understand why there is actually a benefit to people booing his material. Were a film like this were not generating strong emotions such as booing, this film would have been a failure for him. Art, be it in film or in paintings, serves to challenge the things we believe in, and that is what Von Trier has done here.

“Antichrist” is a movie which takes its time in getting to where it’s going as opposed to going for a quick payoff like most movies do. If you can keep up with its slow pace, you will be in for a movie as mesmerizing as it is psychologically draining.  Many will it intensely, but I count myself as one of its defenders. For me, this is far and away one of the best movies of 2009. But like both sides, I will warn you this is not a movie for everybody. If you are easily offended or not in the mood for something deeply disturbing, then don’t see “Antichrist.”

* * * * out of * * * *