Synecdoche, New York
If we don't "go to the movies" in any form, our minds wither and sicken.
Editor's note: Robert Cameron Fowler is one of six recipients of the Sundance Institute's Roger Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism for 2014. The scholarship meant he participated in the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Fellowship for Film Criticism, a workshop at the Sundance Film Festival for aspiring film critics started by Eric Kohn, the chief film critic and senior editor of Indiewire.
The Sundance Film Festival prides itself on providing attendees with great stories. I would argue that it best provides us with great characters, creations that are textured with relatable flaws and enlivened by dynamic arcs. Sundance 2014 was a fruitful gala of boldly written and acted characters, many of them making a searing impression. Compiled here are ten of the most psychologically rich characters to grace Park City this year. Ranging from lovable to hateful, they are all distinguished by the unique emotions they induce and the interesting questions they provoke.
1) Ivan Locke, "Locke"
Throughout "Locke," the titular protagonist is the only character we see. As he drives his car towards his destiny, his weary features dominate every frame. The film never suffers from a lack of dimension, however, because Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is an endlessly fascinating figure, holding our attention with a vice-like grip.
Locke is a man facing every conceivable crisis: professional, familial and internal. When a past indiscretion comes back to haunt him, he chooses to tackle the result of a single mistake head on. Resolute in his decision, he drives in his car to herald the birth of his bastard son on the eve of the most important day of his career. Having left his company in a lurch and finally having to confess his betrayal to his wife, Ivan is a man plummeting from grace over the course of one night. He refuses to fall quietly.
Calling his co-workers, family, and the frantic mother of his impending child, Ivan determinedly attempts to keep his job, mend his marriage and do right by a woman he merely pities. He is almost robotically pragmatic as he tries to assuage the shock of those he has let down, suggesting a man who has always been as efficient as he is aloof. Watching Ivan try to apply his sizeable powers of persuasion to those he has disgusted is like watching an Olympian gamely try to lift more than he can possibly carry.
Ivan is a construction foreman who romanticizes concrete with a fetishistic fervor. As we watch him try to navigate his crisis and coax those he cares about into forgiving him, his love for the material becomes clear. Concrete is pliable until it solidifies, a monument to whoever shaped it. For Ivan Locke, the buildings he helps erect are his legacy, just like the son he speeds through traffic to help bring into the world. His attempts to crisis manage his predicament is a builder trying to make sure the concrete is shaped to his liking before it solidifies, but in this case he is dealing with the volatility of people. Ivan is a man who has lost his credibility with those who love and respect him, but as we watch him pick up the pieces, we are ensnared by his grace, dignity, and sheer magnetism.
2) Mason, "Boyhood"
We first meet Mason (Ellar Coltrane) when he is five years old, sprawled out on a patch of grass, dreamily staring up at the sky. Behind his eyes, blue as the limitless canvas he gazes upon, is a vacancy hungry to be filled, a yearning for maturity. He is the boy we follow into manhood through director Richard Linklater's epic—filmed intermittently over a period of twelve years—and even by the film's endpoint he is not that complicated at face value. He's a bit wayward and moody, but overall he is a fairly well-adjusted, normal young man.
"Boyhood" offers unprecedented access as to how we change and don't change as we grow into our adult self. Mason's childhood feels as long and mythic as scripture yet brief and random at the same time. We watch him gradually reconcile the disparate advice given to him by his divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke). We see how he grows tougher and more reserved after a string of abusive stepfathers. But as the years progress, he retains qualities that were manifest when he was just a little boy: a poor work ethic and a sensitivity that he never quite finds the right words to express.
Mason's story is unique to him, and yet it is the story of all of us. We observe him being shaped like malleable putty by his experiences early in life, only for his development to become more honed and narrow in his teenage years, each moment adding another delicate line to this forming sculpture of a person. He is only dimly aware of how much he owes his identity to his parents, his surroundings and the fabric of time itself, but we become privy to it. He gifts us with a deeper understanding of our own lives as we watch his beginning.
3) Kumiko, "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter"
Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is achingly shy, almost disciplined in her anti-social behavior. She is childlike, heartbreaking and endearing as she struggles to navigate a world she can't even begin to comprehend. She is cowardly, so terrified by human interaction that she can't even stomach spending a minute alone with a child, and yet she can be daring, trudging alone in the lethal cold of Minnesota. There is also a good chance that she is insane, her beguiling naiveté masking a frighteningly deluded mind. You're never know for sure if you want to hug her or put her in a straightjacket.
Barely rising to the level of mediocrity at her secretary job, Kumiko's true vocation is treasure hunting. After finding a VHS tape buried in a beachside cave, she becomes obsessed with the grainy, sputtering footage it contains. The film she watches is the Coen's "Fargo", and her point of fascination is the scene where Steve Buscemi's criminal buries a case of ransom money amidst an endless expanse of fence posts and snow. We all know now that the film is fiction, but the cheeky opening title card "Based on a True Story" is all the confirmation Kumiko needs. Convinced that the treasure is real, she becomes a self-described "conquistador," an explorer charting a course for the Americas to find her fortune.
We watch her journey from her alienated life in Japan to the equally alienating landscape of Minnesota, armed only with a stolen credit card and unbending determination to collect her bounty. We watch as kind strangers aid her along her way to Fargo, each of them befuddled by her quixotic quest. Then, gradually, we begin to see this fragile hermit develop her own roar, becoming increasingly defiant every time she is told that the treasure is not real. Her disheveled and pallid visage become more pristine and glowing as she marches deeper into the winter wilderness of America, emboldened by her initiative to follow through on her dream.
Kumiko is a fool, perhaps even a crazy one, but she is also a dreamer. As she doggedly pursues her treasure, her burgeoning fearlessness makes us wonder if there is a difference between those two qualities. Of course, her quest is never about monetary gain but self-realization. She goes in search for money that doesn't exist, but along the way she finds herself.
4) Philip, "Listen Up Philip"
Philip (Jason Schwartzman) is a jerk and will always be a jerk. Entrenched in his vanity and neurosis, he is most likely incapable of changing his ways; even the omnipotent narrator who observes his life tells us as much. Yet he is endlessly compelling. Perhaps it is his deep sensitivity (which of course he possesses, he's played by Jason Schwartzman) or his incessant self-loathing, but whatever the reason we never want to look away from this manic mess of a scumbag.
He is a New York-based writer enjoying the validation of professional success with his well-received sophomore novel. For most people, such a triumphant tipping point in their career would leave them gracious and humbled. Not so for our man Philip, who seizes his newfound leverage and brandishes it like a cudgel at everyone and anyone he perceives to have slighted him during his time as a struggling writer. He is a spiteful jerk who wants it all his way: to be showered with adulation as long as those praising him admit their inferiority. His viciousness is best distilled when he takes a smitten fan out on a date only to humiliate her, reminding her of how she had met him before he was famous and hadn't given him the time of day, only after kissing her and cementing his vindication, of course.
He is truly toxic and fundamentally broken, craving love from others but hating himself so deeply that he is repulsed by real affection, finding it cheap and insincere. The only person he seems to truly connect with is his equally vile mentor Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), whose mixture of backhanded praise and blatant condescension is the closest form of flattery Philip will accept from anyone.
Perhaps Philip's only redeeming quality is his unwavering integrity, no matter how irrational or perverse it may be. He never compromises and never will be satisfied, constantly brutalizing the patience of those around him. Even when he confesses his tragic childhood to his French girlfriend near the film's end, his sheer obnoxiousness abates any of the sympathy he is seeking. He is a character who begs for your love while scorning you for giving it at the same time.
5) Frank, "Frank"
Michael Fassbender's face that launched a thousand ships is encased in an oversized head as Frank, a rock star who is an enigma even to his band mates. The mystery of what lurks behind the dead-eyed mask is what draws you to him, but the truth about Frank is that he would remain a cipher without the quirky shell that shields him. The bizarre music he creates doesn't help to clarify who he is; he's a tortured soul who isn't trying to fabricate mystique but is instead a genuinely indefinable riddle.
The undisputed leader of a ragtag team of lost souls, Frank is more of a philosophical guru than a rock headliner. He is a luminous star; the kooky individuals who jam with him planets that are irrevocably drawn into his orbit. There is Don (Scoot McNairy), a troubled basket case who worships Frank as a spiritual guide, smitten with his embrace of the unorthodox. It's a symbiotic arrangement, Frank needing his weird little family as much as they need him. Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), his temperamental lover and muse, fiercely guards him from outsiders for fear that they will disrupt the tenuous harmony they have created together. He relies on her for his emotional wellbeing, nestling his gigantic head on her shoulder as she soothes him with comforting words.
If any component of Frank's erratic personality can be pinned down, it is his generosity of spirit. Friendly and eager to please, he is the kind of oddball who can charm just about anyone, which he demonstrates when he sensitively pacifies an irate German family who discover the band holing up in their vacation home.
When Jon (Domnhall Gleeson), a frustrated songwriter and the film's true protagonist, joins the band, he is completely enchanted by this plaster-encased figure, quickly convinced that the world should know about him. Frank, despite being brazenly avant-garde, is flattered by Jon and agrees that the band should try to break into the mainstream. Watching him gradually disintegrate as the pressures of being accepted by the masses is heartbreaking. After all, he's a creature that can only survive in the corners of niche. What Jon discovers is that Frank and his merry band of outcasts don't make music for popular consumption but instead for their own emotional needs. By the film's end, Frank still remains an enigma to us, but we learn to simply accept the mystery.
6) Terence Fletcher, "Whiplash"
Terence Fletcher (J.K, Simmons) is a mentor that corrupts as much as he inspires. Ferocious, pitiless and startlingly disciplined, this Shaffer Conservatory of Music teacher exercises primordial methods to wring perfection from his pupils. His variety of nurturing is to verbally eviscerate and push his students to their greatest limits. He never relents in his demands for perfection; you can either play to his level or leave. Fletcher's dream is to cultivate the next great musician and he has no patience for mediocrity. Those with the will and talent to remain in Fletcher's band worship him, having been trained to crave his approval.
Having never produced the next Charlie Parker, his ruthlessness is spurred by a simmering desperation. Those who don't cut it are dispensed with while those who rise to the occasion receive escalating pressure and abuse. Getting the worst of it is Andrew (Miles Teller), a tunnel-vision-focused freshman drummer in whom Fletcher clearly sees potential. Andrew is willing to take the verbal floggings and cruel ultimatums, flattered by Fletcher's interest and seduced by his aspirations for all-time greatness.
Fletcher is the cruelest of masters, manipulating Andrew into stepping onto every potential landmine. What justifies Fletcher's cruelty is that he gets results; his orchestra is one of the most highly regarded in the country, and Andrew recognizes that his skills improve after every shellacking. It doesn't take long for the prodigy to begin emulating his idol, growing more resentful and venomous to those he deems mediocre or who seem to be getting in his way.
Perhaps Fletcher's most insidious skill is his uncanny power to manipulate. He will affect a magnanimous air just to elicit points of weakness in his students to attack later. In one terrific monologue, he mourns the untimely death of a former pupil in front of his classroom, showing a vulnerability and tenderness that was previously unthinkable. After we later discover the cause of the student's death, the eulogy becomes chilling in hindsight. Still, you can't help but admire this monster as he holds court over his jazz band, conducting with the precision of a general orchestrating cannon fire. Fletcher goes to horrifying lengths to get what he wants, but the ends may just justify the means.
7) Roger Ebert, "Life Itself"
We have all come to know "Roger Ebert the film critic" through his television shows and his writing, but Steve James' documentary "Life Itself" allows us to get to know "Roger Ebert the man". The film shows us his life, told through the testimonies of those close to him and from narrated excerpts from his autobiography, while also giving us privileged access to his final months, languishing in a hospital. We learn what made him fallible, complicated, flawed. We also are given a deeply personal view of what made him remarkable: his talent, vitality and integrity.
The Roger Ebert we discover in this film is a man who is fascinated by the story of life. This is what draws him to movies and gives him such a startling knack for introspection. He is rather morbid, obsessed with the finality of death. He can be domineering, arguing vigorously with his co-host of "At the Movies" Gene Siskel between takes. A recovered alcoholic, he is a man who has hit low lows but who still exudes an infectious righteousness. His ironclad certainty of what is just and fair was apparent in him even in his days as a college newspaper editor, judiciously excising newspaper copy he deemed to be salacious or unethical. He was a firebrand intelligence who could be difficult, but more often than not his convictions were correct.
We watch him transition from an egotistical upstart into a wiser and more humble man, softened by his marriage to Chaz Ebert. We see him become accepted into her family, seamlessly becoming a father to her children, and the transformation of his spirit is movingly clear. His greatest maturation occurs when cancer robs him of his lower jaw and ability to speak. At first he despairs, but the unfailing support of his wife and his undiminished ability to write help him rise again, his voice more eloquent than ever before. His arc demonstrates to us that while time will slowly but surely rob us of our faculties, it also affords us the privilege of growth. By the film's end, Roger Ebert is a man whose body has failed him while his mind is at its peak. He is gone, but his words will continue to impact not just cinema but the fabric of American culture.
8) Sam White, "Dear White People"
Whip-smart and passionate, Sam (Tessa Thompson) is a born leader. She is also struggling to find her true voice, whether she knows it or not. A biracial college student with a black mother and a white father ailing from bypass surgery, her identity teeters along a thin line dividing two races. She is compelled to take a side and she chooses her African American heritage, decking herself out in Afro-centric style and firing off proclamations that have the fire and brimstone indignation of Malcolm X.
The powers that be at the university view Sam as an anachronism of militant black pride, but as she stokes a fire of controversy on her campus we witness firsthand that she has a point. Despite how much we would like to ignore the very real racial tensions that persist in American society, Sam sees them clear as day and is more than capable of trumpeting their existence. Speaking with sensual scorn on her university radio show, "Dear White People," her message blares across the college halls, keeping students both white and black on their toes. A charismatic leader, she has a flock of acolytes who regard her words as gospel. When she is elected President of the predominantly black dorm in a surprise victory over her ex-boyfriend Troy, she kicks her movement into overdrive.
Sam is much more vulnerable and conflicted than she would let on though. Carrying on a secret affair with a white student from her film class, she struggles to reconcile her affection for him with her public persona. She is an activist who is denying her true identity, concealing any of her interests that others could deem "Caucasian." Her carefully composed façade grows increasingly strained as her stature as a leader in a brewing race war grows. Only when she confronts her biracial identity does she find herself, although her perceptiveness for racial inequity does not dull in the slightest. Indeed, what makes Sam such an effective observer of race politics is that she is both white and black, providing her with an intimate view of the racial tensions that persist.
9) Eve Connor | "White Bird in a Blizzard"
One day, Eve Connor (Eva Green) vanishes without a trace, having seemingly abandoned her family. Her daughter, Kat (Shailene Woodley), is apathetic to her absence, and, as we sift through the memories of her mother, it is not difficult to see why. Eve is a wretched shell of a woman, curdled by dissatisfaction and obnoxious in her spitefulness. Having married young to an adoring loser named Brock (Christopher Meloni), she is a wife that cannot love and a mother who cannot nurture. Captive to domesticity, she is a caged bird whose song rings with desperation.Kat suspects that her nickname, bestowed upon her by her distant mother, was meant to mirror "cat," as if Eve would have preferred a pet to play with rather than a daughter to parent. Indeed, Eve is very much a child; she views her daughter with a jealous glare, envious of her youth. She has no filter, bemoaning how much she despises her husband to anyone who will listen, too bitter to care how much her hatefulness reflects poorly upon herself. Having watched her life pass her by, she is determined to wail in a perpetual tantrum.
Eve's beauty remains an asset, and she wields her well-preserved looks viciously. She sunbathes by the backyard pool, hoping to seduce her daughter's boyfriend, Phil (Shilo Fernandez). Consumed with envy by her daughter's budding sexuality, she covets Phil and openly flirts with him, competing with Kat as an object for desire. Yet, as much as Eve resents her life as a stay-at-home wife, she is crippled by her compulsion to live up to the role. She is a perfectionist when it comes to decorating and preparing meals; when a stockpile of meat spoils, she falls to pieces at her failure. Eve may be fatally flawed, but she is a victim to the charade of the American Dream. The source of her unhappiness is as great mystery as her disappearance, and when it is revealed she cackles uncontrollably, realizing all along that the joke was on her.
10) Ashley, "Listen Up Philip"
Ashley, quite literally the better half of the titular character Philip, is a woman trying to rediscover herself. A talented photographer who had supported her deadbeat writer boyfriend for the last few years, she soon becomes the primary target of his condescension and indifference once he finds success. However, she had already vaguely understood that their relationship had been doomed for quite some time, the two of them having drifted apart. She laughs at his jokes and is even is enamored by his reports of behaving badly to those he believes scorned him in the past, but nonetheless they are worlds apart, barely spending time together and harboring very different dreams.
After Philip makes an impromptu exodus to the vacation house of his idol, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), Ashley is forsaken, unable to cope with his sudden absence from her life. She had lived in his shadow for years, the supportive girlfriend of a burgeoning genius, and now she realizes that her devotion to him has left her life in shambles. She retreats to her childhood home to reconnect with her sister and reflect upon her time with Philip–her reassessment of their relationship yields the revelation that it was doomed from the start. As Ashley comes to terms with how Philip had eroded her own ambitions and sense of self, she becomes determined to take a new lease on life, rebuffing any attempts by him to win her back.
Her attempts to regain her footing are modest–she makes out with a grimy loser at a bar, purges her apartment of Philip's belongings and adopts a cat. Ashley's baby steps toward a fresh start begin to coalesce, enabling her to live her life without Philip in it. Ashley is anyone who has had to mend themselves after a toxic relationship, slowly realizing the damage done and attempting to straighten herself out without having the first idea how. By the end of the film, her transformation feels valiant, having gone from the girlfriend sacrificing her own needs to sate a domineering partner to a human being who can move forward, satisfied for now by the companionship of her cat.
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