Editor's note: Piers Marchant has just returned from the Toronto International Film Festival where he saw the films described in this piece. Parasite and The Lighthouse are expected to open theatrically in Arkansas later this year; Marriage Story will have a limited theatrical release in a few markets on Nov. 6 and begin streaming on Netflix in December. HBO has acquired Bad Education and is expected to premiere the film on its network and streaming platform in 2020.
Cory Finley's Bad Education opens in a tony high school in Long Island in 2002, a very popular superintendent takes the stage during a back-to-school night to thunderous applause. He is adored for his kind devotion to his staff and students, his way of remembering not just everyone's name, but also their sister's name, spouse's name, what they like to do for hobbies and because, due to his leadership, the school has jumped up in the state rankings, boosting the kids' acceptance into top-rated colleges and creating an ever-rising boost to area property values.
Of course, he turns out to be too good to be true, harboring secrets and duplicities it will take years and many investigations to finally unravel. The confounding thing is, he actually does really care about his students, is really devoted to improving their lives and putting them, as he puts it, "on the runway" to success. It's just that, like most of us, he's more than one conflicting thing at the same time. He is a good man with an incredibly duplicitous nature, one that can also make him something of a monster.
As frail and fearful creatures, we are very aware of the external types of monsters -- your Frankenstein monsters, Draculas, Stalins, Jeffery Dahmers and nonspecific ghouls -- in fact, we've made a cottage industry of identifying, lionizing and codifying them. But, clearly, it's the dark forces hidden deep in our own subconscious minds we should be most concerned about.
Joon-ho Bong won the prestigious Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes for Parasite, a film about class, the vagaries of existence and the roles we are forced to play within that narrow framework. Kim Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song) is the patriarch of a ramshackle family, living hand-to-mouth in a grubby basement flat, but when his talented con-artist son, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), scores a sweet English tutoring gig with the extremely wealthy Park family, things seem to take a positive turn for them.
Soon enough, the Kims have connived to oust the old staff and infiltrate the Parks' house like termites, with Ki-taek's daughter, Ki-jung (So-dam Park), acting as an "art therapist" for the Parks' rambunctious son; his wife, Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang) as the housekeeper; and Ki-taek himself installed as the driver. Naturally, the Park matriarch, the slightly batty Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo), has no idea that any of her new staff members are related or how unqualified for their jobs they mostly are.
To this point, Bong is content to let the film's natural comedy play out, much like a French farce of mistaken identity, but that's not all the genre-bending director has in mind. A major plot twist I will not divulge greatly complicates the Kims' scheme, and suddenly the tensions slowly morph from comedic to violent, resulting in a bloodbath no one was expecting.
Bong connects to the simmering class fury just beneath the surface of society, the resentments that build like stale coffee dripping into a Styrofoam cup, until the overflow is unavoidable (see also, Joker). Still, Bong makes no easy judgments on his characters, no easy villain to pick out of the lineup. The rich are awful in their privilege and condescension, but he indicates the poor are also complicit in the horror, with their conniving and deception. Maybe we all just deserve each other.
The monsters are a lot less tangible in Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse, in fact, they may not be there at all. Willem Dafoe plays Thomas, an aging "wickie," who mans the lighthouse on a remote island off the coast in turn-of-the-20th-century New England, Robert Pattinson is Ephraim, a young apprentice come to stay a few weeks in order to earn his own post sometime down the line. The men start out as grunting strangers but soon begin to accommodate each other. Heavy-drinking Thomas soon takes a shine to the younger man, cajoling him to join in on his boozy ruminations. Before long, either through constant drinking, creeping exhaustion or just their mutual insanity, the duo become increasingly unmoored (at one point, Thomas points out to him the loss of a sense of time since Ephraim arrived, "five weeks?" he asks, "two days?"), and Ephraim starts to experience peculiar visions of mermaids, giant octopi and other seafarer myths.
Eggers, whose previous film, The Witch, remains one of the best horror films of the decade, isn't so much interested in directly spooking you this go-round, though there are plenty of discomfiting atmospherics to keep things edgy. He's looking to expound on the thesis of his previous film: how foreboding folk tales and myths are deeply, inexorably rooted in our subconscious. They become the monsters that put a figure on our unease in the natural world, alone and vulnerable as field mice in a barren field, with hawks (or, in this case, seagulls) circling hungrily overhead.
Shot in moody black and white, at a squarish 1.19 to 1 aspect ratio, Eggers' film evokes an older era, less explicable, and like the hapless family from The Witch, incapable of confronting the world without superstition and terror. It also derives its unease through sheer masterful technique. You might never have considered the phrase "spill the beans" foreboding, but this film will prove that assumption erroneous.
It's not superstition that leads to the horror in Noah Baumbach's searing Marriage Story, but a set of boogeymen (and women) from a good deal more conventional line of employ: divorce attorneys.
Charlie (Adam Driver), an avant-garde theater director, and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), an actress, have already split up their marriage for all intents and purposes by the time Baumbach's film opens. They are well past the point of trying to reconcile and instead have accepted their separation (cleverly, the film opens with the Charlie describing all the things he loves about Nicole, and vice-versa in voice-over, during a montage of loving examples of what they are referring to -- an exercise, it turns, conceived by their separation therapist, that doesn't go as planned).
The point of contention, then, isn't so much their material assets (they don't have much), but the custody of their 8-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). With Nicole out in L.A. shooting a TV pilot, she takes Henry with her and then decides to keep him there, forcing Charlie, an inveterate New Yorker, to fight for his custody rights, leading to the particularly miserable four-way meeting with their lawyers (Laura Dern and Ray Liotta), in which the narrative of the marriage is bent and twisted back and forth in order to better serve their respective clients.
It's an extraordinary film, based on two powerhouse performances by the two leads. Driver is known as a formidable performer, and he more than delivers here, but Johansson matches him every step of the way. In the film's most explosive scene near the end, the two finally have it out, unloading their pain and sense of betrayal, their outright loathing for each other in a no-holds-barred outpouring of grief and fury. It's transfixing, but it also speaks directly to the nature of our frailties, the howling sense of betrayal when the person we think should most love us for who we are, turns out to have witnessed the same disappointments and dismissals as the rest of the world.
That paroxysm of wrath has a way of eviscerating everything in its path, but Baumbach's film actually ends on a more positive note, emblematic of the way we are forced, in the end, to move on and adapt to new circumstances. They say a divorce is a murder without a body, but it's possible not every death is a crime, as it happens.
As for the aforementioned beloved superintendent in Bad Education, that would be one (Hugh Jackman), who starts the film on such a point-perfect loft, you know there's no place else for him to go but all the way down to the bitterest dregs.
Based on a true story (and as first reported in the school's own high school daily!), Frank's dizzying fall at least gets a bit delayed en route to rock bottom. A powerful, commanding figure in the community, Frank nevertheless rules not by fear and intimidation -- at least, before he's cornered -- but with compassion and caring. Such is his devotion to the school he helped raise from the ashes, that he makes a point to know nearly every teacher, student and staff member in the place. A former English teacher himself, he treats every situation as a workable problem to be solved.
And the problems start coming from all angles: First, it's revealed that his vice-superintendent (Allison Janey), the person tasked with making proper use of the budget, has been embezzling school funds for her own personal purposes for years, forcing him to lay her off. Then his personal life starts to get more complicated, even as an enterprising student (Geraldine Viswanathan) digs further into the investigation of financial improprieties among the supervising staff.
Frank, a master of duplicity, it turns out, harbors more than his share of secrets, but it's the exposure of the sheer number of layers to his mental state of mind that hints at the greater depths of his sociopathy. As with Bong, Eggers and Baumbach, director Finley is less interested in pointing fingers than spreading his hands wide enough to take in everyone's perspective. There are many things to admire in Frank, including his relative calm, even in the face of impending doom, but what's more, in taking a more holistic view of things, his actions, while never justified, become vastly more explicable.
It's easy to call out his extravagance and dishonesty, to think of him as an aberration, rather than the settled norm. But, in our heart of hearts, we must know what we too could be capable of, how far we could go if we ever let the reins slip from our clutched hands. We are all capable of monstrosity such that we should consider every day we hold it in check a roaring success.
MovieStyle on 10/04/2019
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