In the past, when witnessing an incandescently excellent performer in a leading stage or screen role, you could proclaim your enthusiasm with an easy retort: “I'd watch that actor read the phone book for two hours.” But how are we to express such admiration in a world without phone books? “I'd watch that actor practice Zen meditation for two hours”? “I'd watch him watch his grass grow”?
Whatever the cliché may be these days, it applies to the experience of viewing Mark Rylance in writer/director Graham Moore's The Outfit, a literate and foreboding crime thriller made damned near electrifying by the breathtaking subtlety of its star. It's a low-key work that would fit nicely in an intimate black-box theatre: one locale; seven speaking roles. (The exact same could be said of the recent grieving-parents chamber drama Mass.) Rylance, however, creates entire worlds of motivational complexity in his character's carefully considered language and cagey reactions. While there's considerable mystery in the plotting, there's even more in the man himself, and Rylance's artistry makes Moore's directorial debut the rare gangster saga that makes you grin wider and wider the scarier and nastier it gets.
The Bridge of Spies Oscar winner (and, not for nothing, three-time Tony winner) plays Leonard Burling, an exquisitely gifted cutter – don't call him a tailor – of men's suits in 1956 Chicago. An English transplant with a steady business and a devoted surrogate daughter (Zoey Deutch's Mable) to assist him, Leonard is polite, unassuming, and precise, and his clothing shop is the secret drop-off point for Chicago's ascending crime family the Boyles. During one of his frequent visits to pick up a series of presumably cash-filled envelopes, hotheaded tough Richie Boyle (Dylan O'Brien) reveals to Leonard that there's an FBI informant amidst his family's circle of thugs – one whose identity will soon be revealed through a new invention called a “cassette tape.” What results in The Outfit is a 106-minute game of “Who's the rat?”, with the potential suspects including Boyle loyalist Francis (Johnny Flynn), gangster kingpin Roy Boyle (Simon Russell Beale), chief henchman Monk (Alan Mehdizadeh), and perhaps Richie and Leonard themselves.
By nature, I'm a sucker for twisty, human-scale whodunits of this sort, and it shocked me that the jig appeared to be up a mere half-hour into the film, when a terrified- and guilty-looking Leonard confided to Richie that he, himself, was the rat. After a few bone-chilling moments of silence, Richie cracked up at the notion, and Leonard laughed and admitted he was kidding, and peace was restored. Except it so wasn't. Because from the start, it's evident that Rylance's mild-mannered cutter knows far more than he chooses to reveal. And while Leonard's expressions and movements are deliberately calm and unthreatening when others' eyes are on him, he'll deliver a clipped, speedy gesture – the confident flick of a cigarette lighter, a quick grab toward some cutting shears – the instant their backs are turned, demonstrating that Leonard's mind is moving eight times faster than his public facade would suggest. Leonard jokingly said he was the rat, and still might be the rat. But if he isn't, he probably knows more than he's saying about who the rat might be – and also knows unequivocally how to use that awareness to his advantage.
With Rylance quietly firing on all cylinders in this beautifully written role (Johnathan McClain is Moore's co-screenwriter), The Outfit is as much fun as I've had at the movies in months, and even the narrative's escalating preposterous and O'Brien's somewhat overscaled performance weren't able to sully my enjoyment. Deutch, looking more like her real-life mom Lea Thompson every year, is luminously down-to-earth as Leonard's Gal Friday, Flynn is forceful and frightening, and Beale gets one scene opposite Rylance that's an absolute humdinger of an acting showcase – a truly delicious sequence of unstoppable force meeting immovable object. (There's also a spectacular brief role for Nikki Amuka-Bird, who's less deus than devil ex machina.) Despite the minimal cast and limited décor, the mid-'50s period design is spot-on, with composer Alexandre Desplat providing an eerie, mesmerizing score. And although the director's staging is intentionally claustrophobic, he finds amazing variety in his compositions, cannily demonstrating shifting allegiances and power positions through well-chosen points of view. All told, I had a ball at this thing, and while I adore Moore's achievement as a cineplex offering, I'd also pay big bucks to watch The Outfit in a theatrical setting. I'd pay twice as much if Mark Rylance could find a way to star in it.
Because the production/distribution company A24, beyond its independent dramas and comedies, has become so associated with the “elevated horror” genre revered by we fans of Hereditary, Midsommar, Lamb, et al, it's tempting – and certainly understandable – to want to look for deeper meaning and resonance in writer/director Ti West's A24 splatter flick X than perhaps actually exists. Yet if West didn't have more on his agenda here than giving audiences a queasy, raunchy good time (and I'm not convinced that he did), that would still be plenty, as his period gross-out about a porn shoot gone nightmarishly wrong is still a considerable blast for those who dig this sort of thing … and generally speaking, I very much do.
With his low-budget shocker set in rural Texas in 1979 and boasting a grungy visual style reminiscent of Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left, West's storyline is drive-in simple: a sextet of enterprising young hucksters and wannabe stars travels to a ramshackle farm property to shoot their X-rated movie, runs afoul of the elderly married couple who owns the land, and pays for their debauchery in increasingly gory ways. Although the actors playing farm proprietors Howard and Pearl (Stephen Ure and a mystery participant whose identity probably shouldn't be spoiled) are smothered in such heavy prosthetics that you instantly doubt they're as old and decrepit as they appear, West does seem to have ideas he wants expressed through their combined presence: about the relation between covetousness and violence; about the debilitating loneliness of figures marginalized by society. But his employment of Howard and Pearl as hideous gargoyles undermines our empathy for them – it's meant to be crowd-goosingly disgusting when the pair has sex – and West's attempts to tie his themes to the fire-and-brimstone TV sermons routinely viewed in background shots never align in satisfying ways. Better, then, to appreciate X simply for what it is at heart: an unapologetically vicious little kick with vivid performances, a welcome sense of humor, and a surprising number of elegant grace notes.
Mia Goth, who's maybe the best-named genre starlet ever (so much horror/thriller adjacency there!), appears to be having enormous fun as a tough-cookie Texan with Debbie Does Dallas aspirations, and her Maxine leads a winning crew of home-video hopefuls charmingly played by Martin Henderson, Owen Campbell, Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, the Pitch Perfects' Brittany Snow, and Jenny Ortega – the latter, after Scream and Studio 666, appearing in her third fright film in three months. (If we get Ortega in nine more by year's end, you won't hear me complain.) As gruesomely entertaining as it was to watch most of them get knocked off, I also would've been perfectly content had West's plotting just allowed their well-meaning nitwits to continue their first hour of making jokes and getting high and assuring themselves that the seedy “cinema” they were crafting was the name-making masterpiece they believed it to be. (In a lovely diversion midway through, Snow sings Fleetwood Mac's “Landslide” with Mescudi accompanying her on guitar, and your heart momentarily breaks for the tragic fates in store for these foolish, horned-up sweethearts.)
But of course, X is, first and foremost, a horror show, and West makes it a largely exceptional one, with its high points including two unanticipated shotgun blasts, at least a half-dozen solid shout-outs to Psycho, the Quiet Place-esque reveal of an upturned nail, and, best of all, the overhead shot of a hungry alligator lazily making its way toward an unsuspecting skinny-dipper. Word has it that West made a prequel to this work in conjunction with the original's filming, so there's a strong chance that soon – perhaps even later this year – we'll be treated to an X2. That's also the title of the all-time-finest X-Men movie, so as terrific as this release is, it's possible that an even better one is right around the corner.
Successful comedies kind of need to be funny and successful dramas kind of need to be dramatic. Yet I'd argue that, while it certainly helps, a successful horror film doesn't necessarily need to be horrifying so long as it remains interesting, and writer/director Iris K. Shim's decidedly not-scary Umma is most certainly that.
Sandra Oh stars as first-generation Korean-American Amanda, whose childhood trauma at the hands of a wretchedly sad and angry umma (Korean for “mother”) has led to her crippling fear of electronics – a malady not unlike the electromagnetic hypersensitivity experienced by Michael McKean's Chuck McGill on Better Call Saul – and her isolated rural life as a beekeeper and single mom to high-schooler Chris (Fivel Stewart). Still, Amanda seems happy enough … or does, at least, until her estranged uncle (Tom Yi) arrives with a box of his sister's remains and beloved possessions, instructing the unwilling Amanda to give her late mother a traditional Korean burial or face the consequences. Those would apparently be the resurrection of the woman's spirit and its determination to make Amanda's and Chris' lives a living hell, and truth be told, I'm not sure I bought this. I'm not sure we're meant to, given that it remains naggingly unclear – even at the finale – if there actually is a demonic entity on the loose or if all the odd goings-on are in Amanda's head. And although Umma features the requisite dream sequences and “Boo!” scares (the only solid one involving the stomping of a cute baby chicken), Shim, with her lackluster pacing and compositions, doesn't seem remotely comfortable with the overtly genre aspects of her tale. While there's a fair degree of screaming on Oh's part, the images she's screaming about, almost universally, are more worthy of yawns.
Yet unlike a lot of fright films, the far more accomplished X included, Umma does appear to have reasons for existing beyond serving as a “mere” delivery machine for gasps and jolts. A Korean-American based in Chicago, Shim digs deeply into the festering hurts and resentments carried by her native and Americanized Asian characters, and aided by Oh's wrenching, moving portrayal, she takes an especially acute look at how Amanda's abusive victimization has left her intractably determined – a proper burial for her mother will (purportedly) stop the supernatural madness and Amanda still ain't gonna give that lady one. But unless it's failing in its halfhearted desire to frighten us, Umma is actually pretty decent in all regards: there are warm turns by Dermot Mulroney and an offhandedly charismatic Odeya Rush; Oh and the fierce, touching Stewart share a lovely familial chemistry and engage in an enraged slap-fest that actually hurts us; Oh is given a number of insinuatingly creepy moments in which we sense her becoming her deceased mom; beekeeping, as always, is a wonderfully cinematic pursuit. I may never have been scared by Umma, but I was pleasantly surprised by how engaged I was. It's sort of like Minari redesigned as a Blumhouse flick. There must be at least a few of us who'd want to see that. Um … right?
A few months back, after an umpteenth viewing of Fatal Attraction (which always seems to be on every basic-cable, premium-cable, and streaming service simultaneously), I finally thought to look up what films director Adrian Lyne had released since 2002's Unfaithful, the last one of his I could recall. I was astounded to learn that there were precisely zero, and nope, the guy didn't die, he just … vanished. While I still haven't discovered the reason for his two-decade hiatus from movie-making, I'm pleased to report that Lyne just debuted (via Hulu) his first new movie in 20 years with Deep Water, a Patricia Highsmith adaptation that also happens to fall under its director's snuggly genre blanket of erotic thrillers. It's also a work whose chic professionalism and straight-faced camp not only brought back happy memories of Fatal Attraction and Unfaithful, but of Indecent Proposal, 9½ Weeks, and the 1997 Lolita. If only Lyne's latest were in anything close to their resplendently trashy company.
There are times in which Deep Water almost gets there. As Ana de Armas' Louisiana vixen constantly flaunts her extramarital affairs in front of her spouse, and as Ben Affleck's cuckolded hubby constantly threatens to kill her paramours or actually does, the atmosphere here is ripe with juicy schadenfreude, its urban-bayou denizens forever lounging at one exquisitely outfitted soirée after another. Everyone in sight – the impressively cast assemblage of friends and lovers boasting, among others, Tracy Letts, Finn Wittrock, Jacob Elordi, Kristen Connolly, and comic-relief dynamo Lil Rel Howery – shares meaningful glances and biting bon mots as de Armas all but conceives children while Affleck watches. And Affleck himself gets to act out what are apparently his three favorite performance modes: Poor Ben (that Argo snub!), Sad Ben (that Batman interview!), and Clueless Ben (which, thanks to Gone Girl, is my favorite mode). But while, as ever with a Lyne project, it's all impossibly stylish and helplessly watchable, Deep Water's narrative – at least in screenwriters Zach Helm's and Sam Levinson's modern-day interpretation of Highsmith – is almost thunderously ludicrous; I think I may have sprained my back from the number of times the overall dopiness made me pick my jaw up off the floor.
And while you're not believing an instant of the plotting, you also don't buy the character motivation for a second, given the laughable extremes to which both partners poo-poo even the suggestion of divorce. You could ma-a-aybe imagine Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray getting away with this horned-up noir in 1957, the year of the book's publication. In 2022, however, it just plays as unaccountably silly, and the only moments in Deep Water that truly reminded me of the Adrian Lyne of old came with his expert guidance of Grace Jenkins, the tyke who plays de Armas' and Affleck's precocious daughter Trixie, and who brought back loving memories of the director's magical work with young Ellen Hamilton Latzen in Fatal Attraction. Lyne seems so understandably fond of this kid that he actually gives her a whole end-credits scene to herself, with Jenkins delightedly (and impressively!) singing along to “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” on the car radio. Oh my God, I thought while watching this endearing parting gift. Adrian Lyne has gone soft on us! And then I thought, It's about damned time.
I'm not sure if this is the beginning of a trend. But just a few months after Ryusuke Hamaguchi plastered his movie's title card 40 minutes into the run of Drive My Car, director Mimi Cave waits a full half-hour-plus before presenting the title of, and opening credits to, her new horror romance Fresh (now streaming on Hulu). The main difference between the two similar directorial choices is that, as wonderful as Drive My Car's initial 40 minutes are, the movie gets even better over its next 140. After the completely enjoyable first 30 minutes of Fresh, everything about it goes significantly downhill.
For the record, and as my fondness for X and its viscera-laden brethren will hopefully attest, this has nothing to do with the movie's ultimate gore-comedy design, which finds Daisy Edgar-Jones' unhappy singleton Noa falling head over heels for a handsome, seemingly ideal match (Sebastian Stan's Steve) who quite literally loves her for what Noa is on the inside. Cave's and screenwriter Lauryn Kahn's first half-hour, though, feels incredibly perceptive and insightful about the modern urban dating scene and its perils, and Edgar-Jones and Stan share an instant rapport that feels truthful, improvisational, and deliriously sexy. The rest of the film feels like the rare sub-par episode of TV's Hannibal, with Stan reduced to playing a generically eye-popping madman, Edgar-Jones desperately trying to find variety in Noa's escalating victimization and humiliation, and the final 20 minutes a complete bust both narratively and psychologically. (For those of you who may have already seen the movie, which began streaming about a week-and-a-half ago: Does no one remember that there's still an armed gunman within earshot? Did he just pack up and go home?!)
Still, I'm not sorry I saw it. That British Anne Hathaway lookalike Edgar-Jones (who was remarkable in Hulu's limited series Normal People) is bewitching and delivers a pitch-perfect American accent, and Stan continues to suggest that he's the male equivalent of Naomi Watts: fundamentally dull when he isn't given exciting material, yet utterly transfixing (as he was playing Mötley Crüe's Tommy Lee in Hulu's recent Pam & Tommy) when he is. Jonica T. Gibbs superbly clicks off a trio of traditional rom-com boxes in her role as Noa's devoted pal Mollie, simultaneously playing Female Best Friend, Black Best Friend, and Gay Best Friend. And cinematographer Pawel Pogorzeiski photographs the displayed haute cuisine lusciously, even if you couldn't fathom ever taking a bite. Fresh isn't a meal I'd ever want to consume twice. But I didn't hate tasting it.
Considering her talent, her charisma, and the fact that so few movie-goers actually know her by name (or, depressingly, confuse her with Regina King), I can't wait to see Regina Hall co-host the Oscars next Sunday. In truth, I can't wait to see her do anything else after watching writer/director Mariama Diallo's Master, an inarguably ambitious, heavily symbolic horror yarn that gets immediate points for positioning Hall in a leading role and gradually loses them for being so sadly confused, disappointing, and unsatisfying.
Set in a historically white (fictional) New England college where Hall's Gail Bishop has recently been appointed headmaster, and detailing the real-life and supernatural horrors that ensue after a Black freshman (Zoe Renee's Jasmine Moore) is housed in the dorm room of a former Black student who committed suicide, Dialio's entertainment/treatise (currently streaming on Prime Video and playing at Iowa City's Marcus Sycamore Cinema) is legitimately, painfully uncomfortable in its early scenes. Jasmine may be having scary, otherworldly visions, but they're not nearly as distressing as the hateful nonchalance she gets from her fellow co-eds who make fun of her timidity and refuse to reimburse her for pizza and booze, nor the derisive stares she endures from the school's Black lunch-station attendant and seemingly dismissive English professor Liv Beckman (Amber Gray). It's all intensely discomforting in the vein of Get Out, but without Jordan Peele's accompanying jokes, and the tony-horror highs become even more promising once Hall's Gail fully enters the mix and begins to accurately sense that something just isn't right about this right-leaning institution.
Yet after its effective opening half, Master winds up squandering our investment through an escalating series of missed thematic and genre opportunities, intriguing starting points that lead to dead ends, a truly ridiculous and maddeningly unresolved plot twist involving Gray's professor, and perhaps the most underwhelming climax not only in this year's movies to date, but in the horror canon – of which Master barely belongs – of the entire decade. Hall does what she can with an underwritten role, as do Renee and Gray, and I kept wanting to like, or at least admire, Diallo's outing more than I ever did. But the entire experience just left me depressed about its unreached potential, and thinking that next Sunday's Oscars ceremony will probably be scarier than Master ever proves to be. Strike that. It'll definitely be scarier.