We cover a lot of films here at Reel Spirituality, and we’re currently covering more than ever thanks to the great work of our talented Brehm Practicing Critics Jessi Knipple, Andy Singleterry, Gary Ingle, Kevin Nye, Colin Stacy, and soon Steve Vredenberg and Jonathan Stoner as well. We even offer alternate takes on the same film, so that you, the reader, can benefit from multiple perspectives on many of cinema’s most controversial and challenging films.
But even with all the films we cover, we miss a few. At the end of the year we take the time to catch up on some of the much-praised films we missed in theaters, and we’d like to share brief reviews of films we think are worth your attention. All of them deserve longer reviews, but alas, this is the space and time we have as the year draws to a close.
This week, I’d like to tell you about three films that are available to watch now via video on demand (VOD) services – The Unknown Known, The Immigrant, and Under the Skin. The first two are available via Netflix Instant. Under the Skin is available via Amazon Prime. If you don’t have subscriptions to those services, all of them can be rented from a variety of streaming video providers. Two of these films circle around similar issues. One of them is an outlier. I’d like to begin there.
The Unknown Known is a documentary by famed documentarian Errol Morris focused on the life and work of career politician Donald Rumsfeld. I often bemoan the reliance of “heads up” interviews in documentaries—I’d rather see what people are talking about than see people talking—but Errol Morris has long used a device called an Interrotron for his interviews that allows the interviewee to look directly at the interviewer and the camera while speaking, creating a greater sense of intimacy between interviewer and subject and between the subject and the audience. (Morris is also one of our preeminent documentarians, so if anyone can make a heads up interview work, it’s him.)
That sense of intimacy is essential for The Unknown Known, because the film is focused on, depends on, and questions Rumsfeld’s candidness. While in office, Rumsfeld was famous for his proliferative memos (which are all now part of the public record) and informal press conferences. On the surface, he appears to be a man without secrets, and indeed, he likely even considers himself to be a completely open individual. And yet, Rumsfeld’s truth is often open to interpretation. He has a way of wording things so that they can mean more than one thing depending on your perspective. The film explores this ambiguity.
My favorite moment of the film occurs when Rumsfeld is talking about the late dictator Saddam Hussein. Rumsfeld describes the dictator as a man who curated, controlled, and maintained the myth of his power to such a degree that Hussein began to believe it himself. After Rumsfeld says this, Morris’ camera lingers on Rumsfeld for a little longer than usual, inviting us to consider whether or not Rumsfeld has fallen into a similar trap. The Unknown Known is full of little touches like this. If you have any interest in the American political landscape of the past forty years or the slippery nature of truth, The Unknown Known is a must see.
Another film partly about America that’s absolutely worth your time is The Immigrant. The film is about a young woman struggling to survive in America in the 1920s. Her personal convictions, including her devout Christian faith, are tested by the pressures people put upon her to do things she considers immoral in order to provide for herself and her ill sister. The film stars Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner, and it is one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve seen all year.
The cinematography serves a purpose as well. It establishes setting—the film “looks like” the 1920s—and mirrors the parallel paths of light and dark made available to Cotillard’s protagonist. The final shot of the film is both a technical and narrative marvel. It causes you to question both how it was accomplished and what’s going to happen to the characters next. The Immigrant is full of this kind of ambiguity which lends the film a healthy dose of tension. You never really know what the camera or the characters are going to do next.
I sometimes found the cinematography and the acting a little showy, and it occasionally took me out of the film. I am in the minority though. Many other critics, including my colleague Eugene Suen who first recommended the film to me, consider this one of the best films of the year. Earlier this week, it took home a handful of awards from the New York Film Critics Circle including Best Cinematography and Best Actress. Notable Christian critics Brett McCracken and Jeffrey Overstreet love the film as well. Seek it out.
Speaking of women making their way in new environs, one of my favorite films of the year, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is not to be missed. In fact, if I was forced to name a single film as my favorite of 2014, I would probably have to go with Under the Skin. Nothing has stuck with me more or so changed the way I look at the real world. It is a unique and haunting experience.
On the surface—and really, this is a film about surfaces—Under the Skin is a simple film. An alien assumes the appearance of a beautiful woman, seduces men, destroys them, begins to question her activities, and tries to escape. The alien is played by Scarlett Johansson, cinema’s current icon of ultimate lust. Her casting is essential to the film as it highlights the importance we place on physical attractiveness both in movies and in the real world.
The real world is a character in this film as well. The alien drives around Northern Ireland in a beat-up truck observing men and women interacting with one another and looking for young men to abduct. Many of the men the alien picks up didn’t initially know they were in a movie. They just thought they were being picked up by a beautiful woman. The alien’s conversations with the men about whether or not they find her attractive become a kind of sociological interrogation of our sexual appetites. (Eventually, the young men were told they were in a movie.) A couple of them continue with the alien back to her abode where, in 2014’s most striking and indelible image, they are reduced to their obsession.
The film takes a turn when the alien picks up a disfigured man. This man, Adam Pearson, is truly disfigured. He is not wearing prosthetics. (He also knew he was in a film the entire time.) He and the alien have a conversation about beauty that is as haunting to me as any other part of this film. Her interaction with him forces her to reconsider her activities. As she tries to stop preying on men, she becomes the prey, and the end of the film is as terrible and disconcerting as any ending I have ever seen in any film.
As the alien’s interaction with Adam inspires her to reconsider her actions, Under the Skin inspired me to think carefully about all the ways I prize attractiveness—both physical and otherwise—above other qualities. How often do I favor the influential and powerful? How often to I fail to look past someone’s beauty or lack thereof? Do I use my own attractive qualities to use people? What price would I pay to stop being part of those systems? Am I willing to pay that price? What is attractiveness? What is beauty? What is our mutual responsibility to each other regardless of our attractiveness and with regard to the beauty present in all? Yes, plying attractiveness—physical beauty, fame, power, wealth, notoriety—is effective, but ought we really to trade in that market? Oughtn’t we to value other qualities instead? I could go on and on.
Under the Skin has lots of depth. If you can tolerate its horror sci-fi elements, its sexual explicitness (after all, it’s explicitly about sexuality), its experimental cinematic methods, and its narrative ambiguity (you don’t always exactly know why the alien does what she does), you will be in for one of the most memorable movie experiences of this year or any year.