“Understated” isn’t a word you’d ordinarily use to describe a Jerry Bruckheimer production, but that’s surprisingly what 12 Strong ends up being.
After some movie-critic friends and I came out of Lisa Cholodenko's "The Kids Are All Right," we just had to have a steak dinner -- because the one in the movie looked so delicious. It's that kind of "hang-out" movie, one that leaves you feeling that you've just spent some time with friends (who, OK, can be sometimes be a little annoying and unreasonable and even unlikeable) and wanting to extend the experience.
The film stars three of the best actors in the known universe -- Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo -- along with two excellent young performers, Mia Wasikowska (with whom I was already smitten after her role as the testy teenage gymnast in "In Treatment") and Josh Hutcherson, as the titular "kids." But what we found ourselves talking the most about was how well-made a movie it was -- how smartly written, directed, shot and edited. There were times you would have thought we were talking about the techniques of a complex action-thriller or science-fiction extravaganza.
Take the movie's final moments, with interaction between the two moms -- Nic (Bening) and Jules (Moore) -- in the front seats of a freeway-cruising car and son Laser (Hutcherson) in the rear, driver's side seat. You can sense the movie coming to a close, not because all the loose ends have been resolved (thank goodness it's not all tidy) but because a kind of emotional hump has been crossed and it feels like the right time to leave things where they are. A couple of us found our pulses quickening here: Would the movie end on the right note? What would it be? No, no, not on the shot of the two hands -- that would be too pat. There -- that enigmatic hint of a smile. That's it. Cut. I would never have thought, at the beginning of the movie, that it would end with an image of this character, but when the moment arrives it's absolutely right.
In fact, this is something at which Cholodenko and her editor, Jeffrey M. Werner, show themselves to be quite adept throughout the movie: judging the perfect moment to end a shot, often on the flicker of a character's expression or a minute gesture that crystallizes what he or she is going through. As the last few frames of that image register in your brain, the movie propels you (often with an awkward, empathetic laugh) into the next shot or scene. Sometimes I wondered if anybody (the director or even the actors themselves) realized the camera had caught these little behavioral coups until they were looking at the footage in post-production. Hold the shot too long, and the moment could go flat; cut too soon and you'd miss it -- like Ruffalo's flustered wince in the clip below. It's one of those ineffable things I'll look forward to on repeat viewings.
We also appreciated the way Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg manage to keep five characters' individual and collective storylines in play, juggling them in various combinations so that their orbits synchronize, separate, or intersect effortlessly. (It's almost like they're playing out simultaneously on multi-threaded narrative levels or something...)
They also have a gift for deftly shifting your sympathies within the course of a single scene. For example: We know that Nic disapproves of motorcycles, and that Paul (Ruffalo, as the sperm donor who is the biological father of both kids) rides one. He's out with Joni one day and gives her a ride home. She has been complaining that she's 18 and about to leave for college in two weeks but her mom still treats her like a kid, and he has suggested she assert herself a little more.
OK, you can see what's coming. We see Paul and Joni riding through the streets, smiling and having a grand old time (we're also a little apprehensive that Paul might go too fast or that some accident will occur, justifying Nic's understandable fears). Cut to the living room of the house, where Nic and Jules are talking and we hear the motorcycle approaching in the distance, heightening the suspense.
Of course, there's a confrontation out front, between Nic and Joni, and between Nic and Paul. Nic isn't entirely unreasonable, and she's right that Joni (knowing how she feels about motorcycles) is intentionally baiting her. But Joni has her reasons, too. She wants to be allowed to grow up and make her own decisions. And that's when Paul gives Nic a little parenting advice: "You know, Nic. If you eased up on the restrictions, maybe there'd be less tension..." Whoa. What a stupid, stupid mistake. Yeah, it's good advice. But not now, and not from him. Paul wants in to this family and he doesn't have enough sense to keep his mouth shut. Nobody's a villain and nobody's a saint, they're just nuanced characters, beautifully played.
Another moment: Nic and Jules are concerned that Laser is sexually experimenting with his thuggish friend Clay. Not that there's anything wrong with that but, as Nic says, "I just don't understand why he's exploring with that loser." One afternoon the boys find a sex tape in Nic and Jules' bedroom -- a '70s-style gay muscle/leather porno we've seen the moms play earlier. (It reminds me of the one Scott Thompson watches in "Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy.") Jules discovers the boys in mid-porn, which leads to the inevitable, delicate questions about sexuality and affirmations of unconditional love...
It's touching and hilarious, in part because it's played inside-out: the moms are trying to show how cool they are with the prospect that their son might be gay, and Laser has no idea that's what they're thinking. He's worried he'll hurt their feelings if they know he and his sister have looked up their sperm donor... and wondering why his lesbian moms have gay male porn stashed in their room. Suddenly, the tables are turned and Jules sincerely tries to explain: "Well, sweetie, human sexuality is complicated. And sometimes, people's desires can be... counterintuitive..." It gets funnier and funnier and various secrets are exposed and confused for others...
I'm often curious how filmmakers find their movies in the process of making them. (Something Wim Wenders said to me -- and, I'm sure, many others -- in an interview years ago has stuck with me, to the effect that there's always a movie you set out to make and the one you discover you're making while trying to make the first one. Some of the best films are the result of that kind of openness to serendipitous discoveries.)
In the middle of writing this post I Googled "kids are all right" and "screenplay" and found this March 2009 draft (downloadable .pdf). It isn't identified as the shooting script, and I don't know what revisions may have been made when, how much was developed with the actors, or what was tried, added, or scrapped in the editing. But the whole exchange about "team sports" (in the first clip above) isn't in this version of the script, nor is the extra comic beat, fairly late in the scene, when Laser finally figures out that his moms thought he was gay.
One of the climactic set pieces plunges us inside Nic's head when she discovers something that causes her whole world to implode. It's all in one excruciating close-up, emphasizing her aloneness even as she's surrounded by her family, and the special effects are elaborate and stunning: a muted ringing in the ears; muddled sound, as if underwater; voices bouncing and echoing around the room; possibly slow motion (or the impression of it, I don't remember) as if time itself had collapsed... You've felt this way before, like you're about to faint, and the movie captures the experience with accuracy and immediacy.
And, in the March 2009 script, it's nothing more than this:
Nic sitting back down at the table. She looks drained. Nobody notices. The sound drops out.
Paul and Jules talking comfortably.
Joni and Laser chiming in, smiling, one big happy family.
REVERSE ONTO NIC:
Totally disconnected. Shell-shocked. She wants to scream but it feels like she's trapped in cement.
But that's enough.
Stop watching movies made by assholes. It'll be OK.
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