Drive My Car, Nightmare Alley, The Tragedy Of Macbeth

While some of the Oscar nominees this year for Best Picture are truly deserving of the honour—at least two of the other Best Picture nominees this year left me ….well, if not cold than tepid.

While some of the Oscar nominees this year for Best Picture are truly deserving of the honour—Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, Jane Campion’s The Power Of The Dog and Sian Heder’s Coda being frontrunners in my rank account—at least two of the other Best Picture nominees this year left me ….well, if not cold than tepid.

Is Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car the most vital Japanese film since Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams? More importantly, is Hamaguchi the most important Japanese filmmaker since Kurosawa? The world’s critics’ community seems to think so: his other 2021 film Wheel Of Fortune & Fantasy is in my opinion a superior work, but the chances of Drive My Car winning the Oscar for the best foreign film are pegged at almost there.

Indeed Drive My Car is something we have never seen before in cinema of any language. It is cryptic and compelling, exhilarating and yet exasperating in its refusal to let us into the characters’ inner world.

Really, we can only guess at what our protagonist, a filmmaker named Yūsuke Kafuku is getting at. Is he longing for immortality through his work? It doesn’t look like it. Throughout the three hours of its runtime, Yusuke seems disaffected from his surroundings, a state of ‘being there but not being there’ which is further compounded by Yusuke’s wife Oto (Reika Kirishima)’s auto-eroticism. Oto conjures stories during orgasm which her husband is supposed to memorise during their love-making as she forgets her stories the next morning.

In the midst of all this ruminative creative conceit, Yusuke is detected with partial blindness, just after he catches his wife with another man in their bedroom (after a missed flight, the best fictional alibi for proving infidelity since Man invented the motion picture and the airplane).

Then Oto dies.

I thought this was the end of the movie. But as Karen Carpenter once reminded us, we’ve only just begun. And to hammer in the fact that what we’ve seen so far is just the prelude, the director plays the credit titles at this point of his linear but loopy narrative, when the inwardly-grieving Yusuke proceeds to Hiroshima to direct a stage version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.

Yusuke is assigned a female chauffeur to drive him around (Drive My Car, remember?). The driver, an 18-year old imperturbable stoic girl named Misaki (Tōko Miura) now becomes the focus of attention, as Yusuke finds himself leaning forward from the back seat to reach out to his graceful ostensibly emotion-less driver. Their interaction is initially tentative but soon becomes an escape route for Yusuke from the implacable fortress that he has built around himself.

Complicating the scenario even more (yes, the swirls of conundrum never cease in this mystical journey of a filmmaker into the innermost recesses of his most inaccessible emotions) is the fact that Koji (Masaki Okada) the young man with whom Yusuke had caught his wife, is also part of the Chekhov stage adaptation which Yusuke is directing.

In the end, Misaki drives Yusuke to her native place where she has buried some of her own secrets. By the time we reach the end of the long drive into the darkness, we are left with more questions than answers on the creative process: Yusuke’s directorial style seems much more accessible than what director Ryusuke Hamaguchi has attempted in Drive My Car. Or maybe Hamaguchi sees himself as a superior filmmaker to his protagonist.

Hamaguchi has extracted more juice from a short story (by Haruki Murakami) than other creative minds would squeeze out of a 2000-page novel. In making a 3-hour film out of a 5-page story, Hamaguchi is often seen stretching the emotions way beyond their prescribed limits. Drive My Car tells us that loss and bereavement are best confronted when they are least expected to. That we can get into our favourite car and drive through stretches of the imagination with nothing to lose except our stifling dependence on the trappings of everyday living.

Drive My Car is meant to leave us wiser than before. Tragically, I was left more confused about the conundrum of life after seeing the film. Can a filmmaker really deliver us from our uncertainties with his cinema? This question troubles the film’s protagonist Yūsuke Kafuku as much as director Ryusuke Hamaguchi. As a spectator, I would rather not interfere.

Then there is Nightmare Alley, a nightmare in terms of the bleak canvas it covers.

“I was born for it,” sobs Bradley Cooper’s Stan Carlisle at the end of what is an exhausting and yet exhilarating 160-minute journey into the heart of darkness. He refers to what was known as the ‘geek’ in the circuses of yore where a man was chained and starved and put on display like an animal in a cage. The geek in Nightmare Alley reminded me of the creature in Guillermo del Toro’s last film The Shape Of Things for which he won an Oscar for Best Director. There is no such danger in Nightmare Alley. The film’s rocky destiny is marred by bouts of self-doubt that every character goes through and yet proceeds to do the wrong things, from adultery to forgery to felony.

This is a world of desperate gold-diggers, fortune-hunters with no patience or appetite for guilt. Cooper and Blanchett have a great deal of fun with their parts, although this is not the occasion for it. After scamming several who trust him, Stan meets the conniving seductress Lilith (Cate Blanchett) who is sharp and saucy; in other words, Stan with his dim-witticism and dull comprehension of human nature in spite of being a fortune teller is no match for Lilith. More his league is the straightforward dis-enchantress(a new coinage to describe a woman who is neither seductive nor aspires to be) Zeena (Toni Collette) and Mary (Rooney Mara). The former, Stan fucks, the latter he betrays until Lilith fucks him over.

Nothing is what it seems in Nightmare Alley. The drama unravels like a mirror of illusions in the travelling carnival where most of the darkness erupts into a blinding light of frightening blight where nothing is what it seems and what we see is not even a part of the truth regarding the lives of the characters who live in a permanent state of impermanence and treachery.

No, I didn’t like the film as much as the Oscars committee, which in all its wisdom, has shortlisted this strange untameable beast of a film for Best Picture. Best of luck with that.

Nightmare Alley leaves us with more questions than answers on the nature of faith and belief.

The 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham on which the film is based is dark sinister twisted and unlikeable. The film follows the same route, portraying its con-artiste hero Stan as an illicit illusionist who lucks out when he manages to guess a grieving couple (the extraordinary Mary Steenburgen and Peter MacNeill)’s source of sorrow and proceeds to exploit their feelings.

Stan then bites into more than he can chew when he tries his clairvoyant tricks with a mobster Ezra(Richard Jenkins). This episode ends on a disastrous note, both for Stan and for the audience, as its underlying message of nemesis comes too late. All through the film, Bradley Cooper plays Stan as an artless, though not heartless deceiver, more sinner against than sinned. Stan’s self-righteous outlawry comes to a sticky end with no one left any happier, us the audience included, than the point at which it all began.

Nonetheless, Nightmare Alley is a work of unexpected rewards provide you stick it out. The way in which Stan misuses his gyaan on reading the future, turning it smoothly into a scam industry, shows that moral degeneration is the worst scourge since the plague….give or take the pandemic.

Finally, sigh, Joel Coen’s raved-over The Tragedy Of Macbeth for which Denzel Washington has been nominated for best actor. The real tragedy of Macbeth is that, like Banquo’s ghost, it haunts us from school to the end of our lives. One interpretation or the other of the Shakespearean masterpiece—and let’s face it, there’s no one quite like Shakespeare, not even Chetan Bhagat—will assail our senses. I must say this new version of the universe’s oldest and most revered tale of nemesis and vendetta, is an intoxicating brew, and not always agreeably so. Some of what the marvellous Joel Coen (who is to Frances McDormand what Martin Scorsese is to Robert de Niro) has conjured here is plainly exceptional. And I do mean plainly: this is a minimalist Shakespearean production, that underlines the tragedy of overweening ambition by sketching a grim austerity onscreen. Hence the film is shot on what look like elaborate stage sets with Macbeth and his lady’s castle resembling an emptied-out museum that has just been robbed of all its valuables. And that’s a fair description of the monstrous moral bankruptcy that grips the saga of murder madness and mayhem.

The performances of course are so powerful they tend to overpower the core tenability and power of the plot. It is interesting to note that some of the supporting actors are as efficacious as the central Washington-McDormand performances. I was especially blown by Alex Hassel’s Ross, who brings to the table the moral rectitude of a statesman who would rather not be a true friend to a true fiend, and, most unusually Corey Hawkins(how did Coen think of this Dr Dre player ?) as Macduff. Watch Corey when he is informed of his wife and children’s slaughter: his face is a moving map of disbelief grief and anger. Perhaps this will get me lynched. But I’d say Corey’s Macduff is more powerfully aligned to the Shakespearean vision than the central performances that do their own thing to the immortal lines.And the prophecy that Macbeth would die in the hands of one not born of a woman, comes true when Macduff reveals he was ripped from the womb: caesarian during times of regicide?

As for Denzel Washington’s Macbeth, he seems to know his Shakespeare well enough to give the lines his own sexy spin.He modifies the punctuations to make them dazzlingly Denzelited. Women (even those who don’t know their Shakespeare, and that covers just about 98.9 percent of the population)would find his cocked eyebrows and drawling die-alogue delivery demonically dishy.I can see the ladies saying, “Awww, so what if he slaughtered the King? How dare anyone even think of wearing the crown when Denzel is around?”

I found Frances McDormand’s Lady Macbeth far more mouldable and adaptive in her ability to project a scornful pleasure in showing her morally bankrupt husband the way to his dusty death.McDormand plays the power behind the throne as a childless womb-freed power-woman who will stop at nothing to fulfil her husband’s ambition because she has nothing to lose. Lady Macbeth’s transition into sleepless insanity is abrupt and much too hurried, as is the famous banquet scene where Macbeth loses it completely. These two vital turning points in the play are slapped on the screen with a violent hand, as if to remind us that Shakespeare never meant to give his protagonists any room to wriggle out of their evil designs. The Tragedy Of Macbeth is a self-consciously epic creation designed to give Shakespeare’s tragedy a cosmic karmic contemporary ‘cool’ spin. It is done in a controlled emotional atmosphere, as though those hands soaked in blood were not for us to see. Colourless frames have their own rationale. Speaking of colour blindness I wonder what Shakespeare would have thought of a Black American Macbeth and Macduff? Let the eye wink at the hand….

But seriously, I doubt any of these three overrated films will finally get the Oscar. My vote for Best Picture goes to Jane Campion’s Power Of The Dog. Why? Because I can’t get it out of my head. And my choice for best actor? Not King Macbeth, but Will Smith in the tennis biopic King Richard.

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