The past two movies I’ve rented were not very good. Since they starred Sigourney Weaver and Winona Ryder, I think they may combine to equal an attack on the feminist aspects of the Alien movies; but I’m not wedded to that hypothesis.
First, Red Lights. I’d like to be able to say that this movie will be liked by people who like this sort of thing, but unfortunately, that isn’t true.
Red Lights is a kind of suspense-thriller in which a scientist (played by Sigourney Weaver, who is pretty good, and fun to watch) and her assistant (played by Cillian Murphy, also good and fun to watch) go around the country, helping people who seem to be experiencing hauntings, or other kinds of psychic phenomena. They’re opposed by the pro-psychic phenomena contingent in their university department, and its leader, played by Toby Jones (who’s played Truman Capote, Alfred Hitchcock, Karl Rove, and Dobby the House Elf), and eventually by a major star of a blind psychic healer and concert giver, played by Robert De Niro (who chews the scenery nicely). And they team up with an undergraduate who arrives to flirt with the assistant, played by Elizabeth Olsen (who was not that fun for me to watch, but tastes may differ).
The real story turns out to be about why the scientist is opposed to the possibility of any psychic phenomena, ghosts, or life after death, and why her assistant is working in the field to begin with. And, eventually, predictably, whether the psychic star really is who he says he is, and why when he comes to town, weird and threatening events begin to occur in the vicinity of the team.
I looked at the reviews after I saw the film, and they all said the same thing, more or less, which I find it difficult to disagree with: The first part of the film is a fine, reasonably compelling story, and then it falls apart—and after it does, it becomes hard to understand why the problems with the movie seemed so unimportant before. It was possible for me to suspend my disbelief . . . up to a point. It might have been when Cillian Murphy’s character wandered into something that looked like a cross between a David Lynch movie and Angel Heart. It might have been when the obsession of the world press with De Niro’s showman became significantly too intense to be realistic. Whichever one of those was the case, it’s disappointing that a movie that started out promising to overturn movie clichés (you know, A Miracle on 34th Street and things like that) ends up less overturning them than piling a little more silliness on top of what they already had to bear.
Now, the real fun: The Letter. It stars Winona Ryder, Josh Hamilton, and James Franco, and as far as I can make out the director is Franco’s homey (they also did Shadows and Lies together). There is one Rotten Tomatoes review of this movie, and the text preview for it includes the words, “this is not a movie.” But it does have a weird fascination, and I’m going to suggest that it goes off the tracks for reasons having to do with one thing: realism.
Ryder is the protagonist. Her character, Martine, is a playwright and the director of a small theater company. The cast, which includes her husband (played by Hamilton), has been together for many years. Into their cosy milieu strides Tyrone, a striking and much-working actor played by Franco. This is the classic beginning of any story—a stranger comes to town—just as it’s set forward in The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner, a classic classroom text!
You can find out from the Netflix envelope blurb that what happens next is that Martine wonders whether or not she’s going mad.
A little over half the play takes place on the stage where rehearsals are taking place. The rest is told in voiceover by Martine as she relates a story (or stories) she’s been working on, interspersed with events from her own life. It’s never clear which events really happened and which take place only in her story or her imagination.
The voiceover story is framed as a letter, addressed to Tyrone, who is identified clearly from the first moments of the movie as its focal point. James Franco is the most famous and coolest actor among the actual movie’s cast, so it’s easy to accept that he’s one of the best actors in the city and that the troupe is lucky to have him join them for this project. He arrives, is introduced to his very impressed colleagues, is told the group never does run-throughs, objects to this, and participates in the run-through. The company goes to dinner and he first challenges Martine about the wisdom of doing the work she’s chosen (which she also wrote herself) and of working with the characters she’s chosen, and then (while Martine is in the restroom) psychoanalyzes one of the actresses and then announces his certainty that she and Martine’s husband are having an affair. Tyrone appears to be incapable of normal human conversation. He spends every rehearsal sprawling on an armchair onstage, staring fixedly at Martine, as if he disapproves of the play, of how she’s running the rehearsal, or of how the other actors are treating her; the few words we hear him speak are muttered offhand, as if he were helping someone else go over lines. Martine perceives his attention as caring and loving, and begins to think of him as a kind of guardian figure. None of the other actors remark on his disconnection.
Other than that, the rehearsal scenes are, perhaps ironically, pretty realistic. This is how stage actors deliver these kinds of lines. It’s not appropriate for a movie, but this is a movie about stage actors, and so it works. And since the movie is about an author and her actors, it feels right for the film to focus on the rehearsal and rewrite process. The movie could possibly have something to say about how a writer’s life can get tangled up with those of people she works with every day, or about how much connection a play might actually have with reality.
In the hands of a different director, the film as a whole might have been made properly surrealistic. Or, on the other hand, it might have been tugged successfully towards realism. Instead, it makes no sense at all. The real-world bits would actually work better if they’d made less sense. Instead, they’re just realistic enough that they force an impossible reading of the whole.
As time goes on, the world of the actors working on characters onstage begins to feel more real than that of the world outside the rehearsal space. Unfortunately, this was probably unintentional, but I found it interesting. Martine begins to work on rewrites, and there’s a sense of feedback from the actors’ attitudes into her thoughts, which to me seems plausible as an illustration of the way a writer might sometimes work, modifying her sense of what to put onstage as she watches what the actors do with her lines. And the actors start to become uncomfortable with one another, in a way that also seems plausible in a group that’s been working together so intimately for so long.
But again, this is overexplained and overdramatized. I don’t know where the problem is with the material. Parts of it seem like reasonably good metaphors for how a writer works. Taken literally, they might seem a little nuts. With additional metaphors about how they seem to an outsider piled high on top, they seem truly insane. Again, though it’s clear the film has to be seen as realism, it nevertheless feels just surreal enough that it could all be a metaphor, or allegory, or something. This combination is deadly. At best, the movie isn’t finished.
Here, for what it’s worth, is my interpretation of what we’ve got: Tyrone’s mansplaining pushes Martine over the edge. By the end of the rehearsal process, he’s not only developed his own ideas about what the play is really about, he’s become convinced the play is reality, and he’s become convinced he can see through the play, and through the actors’ behavior during rehearsals, straight to their and the writer’s real lives. And he has to put a stop to it. As I see it—if I want to be charitable about it—the film depicts Tyrone’s successful wrenching of control from her to himself. Ostensibly, he’s right about what happened to her, but given the surrealism, the fact that Martine’s imagination is depicted onscreen as real, can we trust anything we’ve seen at all? She begins the film believing she’s in charge and her husband loves her, and she ends it unable to work and believing Tyrone was right about everything. The movie ends with his face in close-up, thinking the story she’s been telling as the film proceeds.
UPDATE: There is a nice scene near the end, totally out of keeping with rest of the film, set by the Bethesda fountain in Central Park (possibly the only unequivocal hint about the movie’s setting). Also, there is one scene that manages to combine rapeyness and slut-shaming in a way that I haven't seen since [fill in blank].