Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.
Sometimes, tidiness in cinema is overrated. It took the infamous super-producer Harvey Weinstein, a.k.a. “Harvey Scissorhands,” a long time to realize that in regards to Snowpiercer, the first English-language film from Korean genre master Bong Joon-Ho (The Host, Mother). Though Snowpiercer opened theatrically overseas earlier this year, Joon-Ho and Weinstein had been publicly battling over the final cut that’d make it onto U.S. screens—Joon-Ho wanted to release his untouched version while Weinstein was determined to clip away 20 minutes and add a spoon-feeding, expository voiceover. Ultimately, Weinstein let Joon-Ho's original vision see the light of day, but with a humbler release strategy. The end result: Snowpiercer will be difficult to find in your local theaters this weekend, but, fortunately, it's available through Radius-TWC’s (The Weinstein Company’s smaller, genre-focused imprint) Video On-Demand service.
It’s logical to think that Weinstein’s intention in snipping 20 minutes from Snowpiercer was to streamline the narrative. Based on Jacques Lob’s comic book, which ran from 1984 through 2000, Joon-Ho’s film is a 125-minute excursion into madcap dystopia, equal parts supercharged sci-fi/action movie, visually insane director’s showcase, and star-studded oddity. Thanks to his international prestige, Joon-Ho was able to land an excellent cast of big names, including Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, and Octavia Spencer, for what’s essentially the most anti-Hollywood spectacle imaginable. Snowpiercer looks, feels, and misbehaves like the craziest foreign action flick you’d find at a bonkers film celebration such as Austin’s annual Fantastic Fest, except that, instead of unknown faces, you’re watching Captain America and the Academy Award winner from The Help go for broke.
And it’s seriously badass. Set in 2031, after chemical warfare has left the planet frozen and the amount of living humans desperately minimal, Snowpiercer unfolds like one giant set-piece. The apocalypse’s survivors are stuffed into the eponymous train, a massive locomotive that zooms around the icy landscape on a path to nowhere. In its front section, the rich and privileged live luxuriously, eating high-end sushi, partying like drunken Manhattanites on New Year’s Eve, and constantly under the protection of armed guards and soldiers. Why the security? Because the train’s other three sections house its prisoners, its sick inhabitants, and tail's dirty, mistreated have-nots.
The tail group’s de-facto leader is Curtis (Evans), and he’s been plotting an uprising that’s simple, really: He and the rest of his tail-end counterparts are going to punch, kick, stab, and murder their way through the guards and the tail’s eccentric warden, Mason (a terrifically bizarre and unsubtle Swinton) to get to the front section and confront the enigmatic Wilford, the train’s designer and ruler.
Once Evans and his crew engage in brutal combat, Snowpiercer’s lunacy kicks into full gear, and the ensuing film is less about cohesion and more for those who enjoy loudly saying “Damn!” while watching a movie. The film’s tone dizzyingly shifts to the point of bewilderment, volleying back and forth from gritty realism to hyper-stylized violence and vibrantly staged yet dark comedy, sometimes the latter two happening at the same time. Snowpiercer’s early gloom and depictions of lower-class abuse feel like they’re from a different movie than later scenes involving The Newsroom’s Alison Pill as a peppy schoolteacher who sings morbid nursery rhymes and smiles giddily while firing automatic weapons. When that burst of colorful classroom anarchy goes down, it’s futile to question why John Hurt’s sensai-like character strangely resembles Master Splinter and talks in prophetic codes that gradually prove to be befuddling, not thematically important.
Had Weinstein’s executive proposal to shorten Snowpiercer gone through, Alison Pill’s trigger-happy appearance might have been a cutting room floor casualty, or, if not that moment, any of the film’s other Joon-Ho’s-on-fire sequence’s could’ve been deleted. Meaning, an extended standoff with multiple corpses, guns, and knives set within a claustrophobic, bright yellow-lit steam room, or a gruesome extermination shot in night-vision green, or the sight of Chris Evans twirling an ax around like Steve Rogers would his shield. Taken individually, Snowpiercer’s action sequences are beautiful slices of inventive savagery; together in the film’s whole context, they’re perfect complements to the overall mania, which Joon-Ho keeps consistent even in Snowpiercer’s occasionally overcooked monologues and pulpy dialogue.
Tilda Swinton, with her Chipmunk accent and speech impediment fighting through her huge buckteeth, chews through some of the film’s best lines: “My friend, you suffer from the misplaced optimism of the doomed,” she says in one scene, relishing the wild material she’s been given.
Elsewhere, Chris Evans keeps a straight face and his maintains his character’s steeliness as he delivers three sentences you’ll never hear in a Marvel movie: “You know what I hate about myself? I know what people taste like. I know that babies taste best.” That, keep in mind, coming in the same movie where he’s lodging an ax into dudes’ skulls. Chris Evans, much like Tilda Swinton and Bong Joon-Ho, understands that not all movies need to be tidy. In Snowpiercer’s case, the filmmakers’ sense of messy ambition is a badge of honor.
Nothing Bad Can Happen
In 2011, a "based on true events" film called The Snowtown Murders disturbed me into a nearly paralytic submission. Based on a series of murders that rocked South Australia between 1992 and 1999, director Justin Kurzel's cold, relentlessly bleak film introduced uneducated viewers like myself to John Bunting, the Aussie serial killer responsible for those homicides, and, honestly, I've yet to shake off some of what Kurzel accomplishes in the film. One "achievement" involves an innocent dog; another, a bathroom and plastic wrap. With an oppressively downbeat tone and total, unblinking exposure to its most graphic scenes, The Snowtown Murders is a masterful film that, frankly, is hard to recommend, lest I submit people to a more depressing experience than Requiem for a Dream.
And now, smiles be damned, a new reality-based film has affected me just as much as The Snowtown Murders. Once again, it's tough to excitedly suggest others give it a look now that it’s opening in theaters, via Drafthouse Films. But knowing I haven’t done my part in getting people to see it would be the most depressing thing of all. The film is Nothing Bad Can Happen, and, despite its tough-to-watch nature, it's an exceptional piece of work.
Written and directed by German first-timer Katrin Gebbe, Nothing Bad Can Happen fictionalizes an incident in her native country she discovered on the Internet, which converged thematically with the book she was reading at the time, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot. Nothing Bad Can Happen is The Idiot channeled through Christianity. Tore (Julius Feldmeier), a warm, upbeat, and skinny teenage drifter, is part of the Jesus Freaks, a counter-culture Christian movement in Hamburg that's part headbanger's ball and part prayer circle. He’s convinced that by loving Jesus, he’s impervious to any earthbound suffering: “What can man do to me?” he asks at one point, unaware of what’s about to happen. Later, he inquires: “Why should we live if we can’t believe in the goodness?”
Because, sadly, some people just aren’t good at all. Tore learns this the hard way after a chance encounter with Benno (Sascha Alexander Gersak), a husband and stepfather of two who provides Tore with a sanctuary when one of Tore’s fellow Jesus Freaks commits a sin in front of him. Using Benno's young son's tent as his outside bedroom, Tore lives on the family's land and slowly integrates himself into their daily routines, even striking up an affectionate and potentially romantic relationship with the teenage daughter, Sanny (Swantje Kohlhof). It doesn't take long, however, for Benno's true colors to emerge—deep down, he's a sadist, and in Tore's disabling kindness and dedication to honoring Jesus' pacifist ways, Benno quickly figures out that he's able to easily abuse his new friend, both physically and emotionally. And Tore, in true Jesus Freak fashion, believes that Benno is his ultimate challenge from the man upstairs.
Gebbe's an audacious, confrontational talent, and Nothing Bad Can Happen doesn't shy away from its increasingly horrific imagery. As difficult as it is to say, "Hey, you should totally watch an innocent kid get beaten for no reason, forced to eat rancid chicken, and unwillingly put into homosexual prostitution," Nothing Bad Can Happen is so skillfully made that it'd be a crime to overlook Gebbe's superb debut for fear of your own psychological discomfort.
Wisely, she doesn't project any of her own opinions about the vulnerabilities and dangers of faith-based religion, simply allowing her character's actions to give viewers the chance to interpret Nothing Bad Can Happen however they may. Tore's determination to see God's work through is presented as noble and brave; “Jesus, I know that Benno is my test,” Tore says through voiceover, “the one you sent me—I need to be strong, and defeat my doubts.” In one of the film’s toughest scenes, Benno murders Tore’s favorite stray cat, holding the feline over a water-filled garbage can and taunting Tore to try and stop him, to “save her.” “Nobody believes in your ‘good guy’ shit,” Benno says. “Do you believe in it yourself?”
As Tore’s situation worsens, and Benno’s actions become beyond reprehensible, the irony of the film’s title becomes clear. “Nothing bad can happen to he who carries the shield of faith,” says Tore, yet the suffocating dread that Gebbe creates, through the increasingly horrific story and a recurring, chilling heartbeat-on-speed sound design that’d be at home in a straight-up horror film, all but confirms that she's not about to let Jesus save the day.
At the Cannes Film Festival in May 2013, Nothing Bad Can Happen has a polarizing impact amongst the press members in attendance. Around three-quarters of those watching its first industry screening walked out, perhaps not ready to embrace Gebbe's assaultive drama. Variety's subsequent review suggested that it be given a special new Cannes award: “Palme d'Horreur.” Though it's never as ghoulishly raw as, say, The Snowtown Murders, and those Cannes walk-outs seem a bit undeserved, Nothing Bad Can Happen justifies Variety's clever distinction. Gebbe has constructed a horror film about the complications of faith besieged by humanity's worst impulses, but in a such an artistically sound and audacious way that prestige is completely warranted.
Nothing Bad Can Happen is proof that, sometimes, the best art thrives on pain.
Nothing Bad Can Happen opens in limited theaters today, via Drafthouse Films.