The grief monster lives inside the house. Based on a 12-page short story by Stephen King from the 1970s that obscures the nightmare between supernatural and psychological, The Boogeyman (2023) is a lean and enjoyable 90-minute horror that is as good a theatre experience as you’ll find right now. There is no obscurity here, as screenwriters Scott Beck, Bryan Woods, and Mark Heyman begin with a horrific cold open that leaves little doubt about the threat at the centre of the film.
The Boogeyman follows a similar trajectory to most Stephen King stories – familial grief made manifest, a central car crash, overlooked teens, etc – but it’s in execution where the film thrives. After the sudden passing of their mother in a car crash, the Harper family of teenager Sadie (Sophie Thatcher), much younger Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair), and father Will (Chris Messina) are struggling to cope in the aftermath, leaving them vulnerable to the presence of a looming spectre in the dark. The film is light on narrative invention, but has some of the most impressively creative horror set pieces that engages an audience far more than the story.
Emerging onto the scene with the impressively minimalist Covid horror film Host (2020), Rob Savage weaponised the familiar with Zoom calls and our collective sense of isolation during the pandemic that made it so effective. Given a studio budget and higher-level actors to work with, the filmmaker created an effective horror film that should stand as one of the year’s best. Savage’s impressive use of light and negative space that he flexed in Host (especially in its constraints), is heightened in The Boogeyman, especially through the use of unique light sources in the set pieces like Sawyer’s light ball, a PlayStation game, or the therapist’s red pulsating light pillar that ratchets up the tension greatly.
Looking for narrative invention and complexity in a film titled The Boogeyman is like searching for water in the Sahara, and Savage is acutely aware of this. The film’s narrative simplicity strips it down to its base elements of a grief-addled family and a monster feeding off their pain, allowing the set pieces and creative execution to thrive. Feeling much like a short story that hastily needs connective tissue to leap to its heightened moments, the film takes narrative shortcuts to arrive at its impressive set pieces. This is not uncommon in the horror genre, but in a post-Get Out (2017) world, its lack of self-awareness is surprising, especially in its very post-2020s setup of therapy and grief.
Supported by a solid all-around cast, Thatcher and Blair are terrific as the mourning sisters. Sophie Thatcher in particular, in her first lead film role since breaking out in the TV series Yellowjackets (2021), holds the movie together with a combination of teenage resolve and raw open nerve that is always engaging. Horror has long been a genre that’s allowed young actors to break out, and Thatcher’s performance here is one of the more impressive in recent years.
The Boogeyman is another in a long run of recent film and television centred on therapy, which while an important addition to culture to lessen the stigma, it makes for a collection of tired tropes with little insight. Will is a therapist, which certainly heightens his fear of opening up to his daughters about the sudden passing of his wife and their mother, but is hollow as a character (something not uncommon with adults in King stories). The depictions of therapists in the film, Will and Dr Weller (LisaGay Hamilton), are harsh and broad, ultimately hurting the characterisation of the profession instead of illuminating it.
Despite its narrative flaws and simplicities, it’s hard not to get swept up in the enjoyment and genre craft on display in The Boogeyman, from a recent emerging talent in Rob Savage. Comfortably levelling up to studio horror scale, Savage heightens every moment with creative set pieces that will thrill any horror fan seeking a new cinema experience.
Guardians of the Galaxy have long been the under-appreciated Marvel gang of underdogs (now including an actual dog in Cosmo, played by Oscar nominee Maria Bakalova), that, against all odds, have formed a surprising trilogy of films that can all be put amongst the enduring enterprises very best. The three films are simple, emotional, and dynamic in ways that are becoming increasingly rare in the MCU – largely off the back of filmmaker James Gunn’s writing and directing style – but a great portion of credit should be given to their strong ensembles and creative art and production designs.
It’s been 6 years since the last stand-alone Guardians adventure, with Gunn being immensely busy in the interim. He has switched allegiances from Marvel to DC, first with his own The Suicide Squad (2021) film alongside a John Cena TV show, and now operating as the franchise’s own Kevin Feige overlord, beginning with his own Superhero rebirth story set for 2025.
What allows this new instalment, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 (2023), to thrive is its basic retrieval mission with crystal clear stakes, a divergence not just from recent Marvel plots, but from most third entries in franchises. When Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) crashes through Knowhere in a failed attempt to kidnap Rocket (Bradley Cooper) for mysterious reasons, resulting in significant injuries, the remaining Guardians must go back through his past in order to save their friend’s life. Where Volume 2 (2017) narrowed its focus to Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt, who is at his best here) backstory with his family, Volume 3 smartly focuses on the origins of Rocket Racoon. Cooper’s Rocket has always been the hipster pick for best performance in the MCU, and he is given an interesting role here as the tech genius Racoon is shown mostly in flashback for the film’s runtime, slowly becoming the grizzled vet we know today. Volume 2 excelled in the tertiary moments between Rocket and Michael Rooker’s Yondu, a formula Volume 3 follows similarly in this flashback origin structure.
Music has always been a heavy focus of the Guardians story from the 80s Yacht Rock focus of the first two films (with Peter’s beloved cassette player), to the introduction of the Zune player in Volume 3, allowing the film to have a distinct 90s flavour. Opening with a wonderful sequence on Knowhere with an acoustic version of Radiohead’s Creep, we see Rocket (Bradley Cooper) singing and moving amongst the ragtag community they have cultivated. It is clear that Rocket is now as closely attached to this Earth music as Peter, a connection that has slowly been growing across the three films. Volume 3 is scattered with outstanding music cues from The Flaming Lips, Beastie Boys, and Florence + the Machine, which surprisingly feels more cohesive to the film’s style than the built-in nostalgia of the 80s music that is so integral to the Guardian’s story.
The ensemble has grown to accommodate a few welcome faces, including Will Poulter and Chukwudi Iwuji as Adam Warlock and The High Evolutionary respectively. Poulter’s charming wide eyed emergence into the world as a young celestial is a wonderful inclusion, especially the two hander scenes between Adam and Ayesha (Elizebeth Debiki), which are the comedic highpoint of the film. Debiki’s devolution from a pompous ruler at the beginning of Volume 2 to a desperate lackey to a maniacal boss here showcases the actress’s comedic chops, breathing new life into a character that was previously given little time.
Iwuji does his best 90s action villain impression as twisted experimental scientist The High Evolutionary – the whole movie has a great ongoing Face/Off (1997) bit – that heightens his scenes, making him more enjoyable than recent Marvel villains. The film’s villain storyline closely resembles the arc of X-Men 2 (2003), with Rocket in the Wolverine role and The High Evolutionary in the role of Brian Cox’s William Stryker, the man responsible for his claws through unethical experimentations. With this close resemblance, an audience is able to settle into a familiar story, allowing the emotional stakes to become the focus instead of a convoluted plot that derails too many comic stories.
Where Volume 3 exceeds well above the previous two films is the wildly inventive world-building and production designs. The warm interiors of Knowhere feel like a home to these characters, which garners emotional weight when it gets put in jeopardy. Guardians has always been about its misfit community with Knowhere at its heart, so it is never a chore the film cuts back to the misadventures of the crew on board while the Guardians are away on a mission. But the inclusion of new locations in Volume 3, like the 80s Star Trek-styled organic security hub Orgosphere or Stepford Wives (1972) tinged Counter-Earth, feels wholly unique in the MCU. Gunn’s Guardians trilogy consistently breathes new life into the wider MCU establishment, with Volume 3 coming at a time they need a major kickstart.
Although the Guardians were integral to the plot of the later Avengers films, it is remarkable how cohesive this trilogy of films is when viewed together. Comparatively, the Jon Watts Spider-Man trilogy and Peyton Reed Ant-Man trilogy are tonally jarring when viewed as a collective story, instead being pulled and twisted into the larger MCU puzzle set.
The very best filmmakers to operate within this larger Superhero space have been those that have been able to wrestle with the large enterprise while maintaining their own sensibilities. Ryan Coogler was able to bring his political and empathic filmmaking chops from Fruitvale Station (2013)into his Black Panther films, while Gunn has been able to weave a satisfying and hilarious adventure romp that never lacks bite, qualities that made him such a compelling emerging filmmaker.
Gunn has a penchant for having his characters plainly express their feelings about any situation, which is a creative quirk that takes a while to settle into but can often lead to moments of immense emotionality. Much like Aaron Sorkin’s or Quentin Tarantino’s distinct writing style, Gunn trusts his audience to move to the rhythms of his character’s dialogue to an emotionally satisfying conclusion, accepting the occasional off-notes on the journey.
In spite of its long runtime and simple retrieval plotting, Volume 3 excels through the strong emotional connection that has been made with this world and its characters. Gunn has perfected his emotionally candid dialogue style, with an ensemble of quality performances, highlighted by Cooper, to create the most satisfying Marvel film in years.
Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 is in theatres now.
“Welcome back Mr Wick” (RIP the iconic Lance Reddick). The bravura American action franchise of the past 10 years, John Wick returns bolder, brasher, and more inventive than ever in John Wick:Chapter 4 (2023). The film, clocking in at 169 minutes with an immense 14 action set pieces, figures which on the surface would cripple most films, but in reality are remarkably well paced. Renown stuntman turned in-demand filmmaker (his IMDb page reads like a to-do list) Chad Stahelski has always focused more on individual moments than a wholly engaging narrative, which is still the case with the fourth entry in the franchise, but the attention to detail in these moments, along with an extraordinary ensemble that are all giving their best, makes the film as a whole immensely enjoyable.
The franchise has always focused on three central tenets: gloriously realistic fight choreography with one of the best to ever do it in Keanu Reeves, stunningly inventive visuals in all real locations, and minimal dialogue with an eye for larger world-building on the margins. These are all ratcheted up to extremes in Chapter 4, bringing the film closer in comparison to a David Lean film than whatever the Russo’s are producing on Netflix.
Following on from the events of Chapter 3: Parabellum (2019), John Wick (Reeves), down a finger and assumed dead by the High Table, must traverse even further reaches of the globe to take down the senior figures of the organisation. The major inclusion to the franchise here is the legendary Donnie Yen, and his presence is felt immediately as the blind retired assassin Caine, tasked with eliminating his old friend John. Caine’s story parallels John’s from the first film, a connection that is simple but effective in a film that knows when to expand the story and when to be quiet and let audiences bathe in the stylised action set pieces.
The franchise has been able to boast an incredibly varied list of cameos from Angelica Houston to Boban Marjanović, adding a sense of scale and interest to each sequence. Added here are Yen, Bill Skarsgard, Rina Sawayama, and Hiroyuki Sanada, all improving on an already impressive ensemble that is unparalleled in an action franchise. Yen in particular is incredible, adding a coy and aloof nature to one of the best fighters in cinema history makes for a constantly compelling screen presence. To be able to add a figure like Yen to the franchise after four films shows the filmmakers are never satisfied with what was previously achieved, always seeking a greater experience for audiences, which they have accomplished in spades.
John Wick has long been a quintessential YouTube clips movie, focusing on individual moments over a cohesive narrative. Chapter 4 is easily the most ambitious entry. Whether that is in its outrageous Berlin rave sequence, incredible Donnie Yen fight sequences, or a seen-to-be-believed false roof bird’s eye oner with explosive shotgun rounds that will have audiences with their jaws on the floor and an overwhelming desire to cheer in appreciation.
The best inclusion to the franchise introduced in Chapter 3: Parabellum (besides Halle Berry and her dogs) are the locations outside of New York, something that is being further expanded here in Chapter 4. Taking place in Berlin, Paris, and Osaka, this film is able to flex its muscles visually and tonally which adds important freshness to a world that could have relied on what previously worked instead of giving audiences a three-hour endorphin rush.
Connection to the entire franchise can be felt throughout Chapter 4, from its extraordinary Berlin rave sequence to Mr Nobody’s attack dog. These moments never feel like a tired repetition, but an evolution of form that makes this film the quintessential John Wick film. With the additions of location jumping and more convoluted plots, the John Wick franchise has morphed into a sort of John Woo-inspired, American Wuxia James Bond or Mission Impossible, with Keanu Reeves at its centre. The only thing it’s missing is the iconic score (although the music is always top-notch).
Among the best blockbuster theatre experiences this decade, Stahelski and crew have pushed every moment to its limits to put John Wick: Chapter 4 in the pantheon of action filmmaking achievements. Comfortably the best film in the series, Chapter 4 is a perfect culmination of everything that makes the previous films great, heightened and stylised to the highest degree imaginable.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year if you’re a cinephile, and it’s just around the corner.
Yes, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Night of Nights —otherwise known as “The Oscars”— will be taking place this Monday morning, March 13th (Naarm time) and the team at Rating Frames is as excited as ever.
As they did last year, our three resident critics have made their predictions as to what, or who, will be victorious in all 23 categories.
Below are the films that Arnel, Darcy and Tom are predicting will walk away with a coveted statuette at the 95th Academy Awards, and their personal vote, in each category.
No one manages to blend crime and action on the big screen quite like Michael Mann. From the sprawling cityscapes that act as their own character, to the attention-to-detail with each and every aspect of production, Mann’s films are distinctively his own. It seems fitting then to look back on his stellar oeuvre and try and rank his titles based on my sentiment towards them at this moment in time. This is especially the case following his recent novel and sequel to the iconic Heat (1995), which he co-wrote with Meg Gardiner, and leading up to his Adam Driver-led, Enzo Ferrari biopic, Ferrari (2023).
Of course, like with any list, opinions are different and feelings towards films change as time goes by and depending on where in your life you find yourself. But for now, these are his films ranked from worst (if you can call them that) to best:
11. The Keep (1983)
Whether it’s due to the fact that large chunks of this film were cut out, or because it’s the least Mann-esque title on the list, The Keep is what I like to call Mann’s brain fart.
His second feature following the brilliant Thief (1981) represents his first and clearest (as there are elements of this in his true crime thrillers) foray into the horror genre. It’s a film plagued by bland and uninspired performances; a nonsensical narrative involving Nazis, a devilish entity, a supernatural Scott Glenn and one of the strangest but best sex-scenes you’re likely to see in a Mann film or otherwise; an interesting production design; and a pretty neat synthy score by Tangerine Dream.
Given Mann has disowned the film because of Paramount’s treatment of it, one can only imagine what the unreleased director’s cut had in store — we can only hope it graces out screens someday.
10. Manhunter (1986)
Many might find my ranking of Manhunter to be completely against the grain, but this thriller revolving around capturing a psychotic serial killer just never resonated with me on a narrative level like some of the other titles on this list (and I still gave it 3.5/5).
Manhunter focuses on FBI agent Will Graham (William Peterson), a detective who’s come out of retirement to help locate an elusive serial-killer with strange motives. His past experiences hunting figures like Hannibal Lecter (a subtle performance by Brian Cox) means he’s the perfect guy for the job.
Manhunter uses Will and the serial killer he’s hunting to create an interesting parallel between the mind of a psychotic man and the man capable of catching him. Its use of home video and the focus on truly seeing almost posits that these two men aren’t so different in how they see the world, but to different ends and outcomes.
Whether or not I was expecting a more conventional voyeuristic mystery-thriller in the way that Se7en (1995) or Rear Window (1954) are —where the killer feels like they’re an arm’s length away, only for the satisfaction of catching them to be snatched from you— is difficult to say (perhaps that’s what people love about this?), but I found myself at a crossroads by the third act. I hope my opinion changes on a second viewing.
9. Ali (2001)
On the surface, a film about Muhammad Ali seems like the farthest thing from a Michael Mann joint. There’s no mesmerising cityscape, no sirens or gunfire, no real suspense in the way that his crime films create suspense, and the subject matter doesn’t exactly scream ‘Michael Mann’.
But this film about the greatest boxer of all time works because of Mann’s interest in figures that don’t play by the rules. Specifically, Ali focuses on the period of time between Ali’s (Will Smith) first major heavyweight bout, the court case filed against him for refusing conscription for the Vietnam War, and his famous win against George Foreman to reclaim the heavyweight title.
Ali’s unilateral decision to not be conscripted was momentous for the fact that he was the heavyweight champion of the world, and making such a decision could affect his ability to box in his prime (which it did). He also reinvented who he was by changing his name and living on his own terms — a staple of Mann characters, but for different reasons. Often his characters are trying to protect others from who they truly are whereas Ali was trying to break away from the branding that others (white slavers) had given him and his people centuries ago.
The opening 15 or so minutes are also arguably Mann’s most compelling in the way that he establishes character, creates purpose and builds tension. At times there’s a suddenness to proceedings where the film makes abrupt leaps in time between the court case announcement, the Joe Frazier fight, and the George Foreman fight, but overall Ali is a portrait of one man’s journey to becoming in the face of adversary.
8. The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Along with The Keep, The Last of the Mohicans represents a different sort of Mann.
Like with Peter Jackson’s first film experience with the classic King Kong (1933) and his eventual reimagining of that classic on his own terms in King Kong (2005), Mann’s first vivid film memory was of 1936’s The Last of the Mohicans.
Helmed by Daniel Day-Lewis as the adopted Mohican, Hawkeye, this period piece about everything from the damning effects of bureaucracy to the Tarzan-esque romanticism of the love affair between Hawkeye and Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe), is the first Mann film to create a sense of scale that would have greatly shaped the way he approached his later films.
By that I mean Mann finds a balance between showcasing the wide and beautiful terrain of a primeval America against the harshness of the looming modernisation that threatens its existence. This translates onto how the characters react to each other, whether it be through Magua (a mesmerising Wes Studi) and his desire for revenge against the British (for what they took from him) as well as his forward thinking to help his tribe, or through the loud and rampant battle at Fort William Henry that threatens the peace of the land.
Guided by one of the greatest scores of any film ever by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman which at once evokes hope and sadness, picturesque vistas, and gripping direction that never falters, this Mann-epic is Mann at his most untethered.
7. Public Enemies (2009)
When it comes to famous outlaws, there are few that are as iconic as John Dillinger, especially given he was a man who wasn’t interested in stealing from regular people, but the state itself.
That’s partly why he’s the perfect historical figure for a Michael Mann film given his self-defined approach to life.
Public Enemies follows Dillinger (Johnny Depp) as he makes prison escape after prison escape, continuously evading capture and robbing banks before finding an added purpose in life in the form of one French-American, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard).
Like all of Mann’s anti-heroes, Depp’s Dillinger is charming and elusive all at once. He’s a character infused with an aura of mystique that Depp delivers with the casual suave that his own image beyond the screen has maintained.
But it’s in the reimagining of the period through a digital lens where Public Enemies really excels. The moody greys, dark passages and almost colourless world are so striking here that it creates a more profound hyper-realism — almost bringing the 1930s to life in a way that shooting on film wouldn’t.
6. The Insider (1999)
A film about a man’s grapple with doing what’s morally right or being forced into silence by forces greater than him; The Insider, in true Mann-style, is an exercise in patience — in waiting for the right moment to make a move before it’s too late.
Unlike Mann’s other thrillers though, The Insider doesn’t have vans of heavily armed forces hiding around the corner, but it instead puts its faith in the truth overcoming the odds. That truth is in the form of former tobacco chemical scientist, Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) and the 60 Minutes producer looking to help bring his story to light, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino). The odds are the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company who are trying to keep Jeffrey, and this story around what really happens to tobacco, silent.
Guided by Mann’s brilliant direction, a well-crafted script by Mann and Eric Roth, and a standout performance from Al Pacino in an unfamiliar but equally familiar performance, The Insider paints a perplexing portrait of the lengths to which vindictive multi-billion dollar organisations will go to in order to supress information. It brings various parties with differing interests together, and creates a wide web of uncertainty for all involved — with no clear contingencies, but everything to lose for everyone involved.
5. Blackhat (2015)
Michael Mann’s most recent film feels like a sum of all of his best parts (it’s also been eight years since it was released!).
The film follows hacker Nicholas Hathaway (a career-best performance from Chris Hemsworth) who, after a series of awry events happen by an unknown source, is released from prison for the purpose of helping discover the person behind these events.
Blackhat is where ideas meet, characters converge, and where the tangible coalesces with the intangible.
In a similar way to Manhunter (but without the straining of classic thriller conventions) and Heat, this film once again depicts two sides of the same coin — Hathaway as the hacker-turned-FBI collaborator, and the unknown hacker blowing up coolant pipes and infiltrating wall-street. One is front and centre for the audience, while the other is kept faceless. While their intentions are different, they occupy a similar space like almost all of Mann’s characters do, but Blackhat is different to his past films because of how it bridges the characters worlds together and carries and communicates messages.
Mann uses modern technology to create a divide (the intangible), and forces his characters to embrace human interaction and connection (the tangible) if they are to overcome this threat.
His portrayal of the L.A. and Hong Kong maze of buildings and their bright lights speaks to the lack of personality or distinguished features in these settings, which fizzles down to the people who fade into each other like ones and zeros. It’s a wider critique on getting lost in the masses at a macro level, and getting lost in the code on a micro level.
Hathaway is the vessel Mann uses here to try and break through the code and by extension, this front that a world lacking real connections, has maintained — with Hemsworth using his size and stature to brilliant avail.
The closing sequence sees Hathaway concoct weapons and armour out of everyday tools, as though Mann is returning man to a primitive state before the world of data and technology became the guiding force. Hathaway gets the upper hand, and walks away in perhaps Mann’s most optimistic ending.
4. Thief (1981)
The OG Mann, Thief introduced audiences to this true-crime loving director who focuses on characters that take pride in the work they do, sometimes fall in love in the process, and live life on their own terms.
For expert safe-cracker and straight-talker, Frank (James Caan), he embodies the above perhaps more than any other character in Mann’s oeuvre. It might be because this is Mann’s most contained film in that it isn’t made up of major set pieces and crowded settings, but instead allows Caan to revel in the dialogue and the weight behind his words.
Thief is about a man on a mission to tick off his checklist of wants before cashing out. It’s also about a man refusing to bow down to the interests of others, instead taking it upon himself to shape his own destiny at any cost.
3. Collateral (2004)
Two guys in a car, strangers to each other, both operating on a routine, a structure that they rarely break from, moving as one through the luminous L.A. night but to different ends.
Collateral is a wonderous neo-noir that pivots two men with differing moral compasses against each other: Max (Jamie Foxx), a slave to his inhibition, to his failure to act and make a difference to his life; and Vincent (Tom Cruise), a man untethered, a multi-faceted nihilistic hitman who gets in, gets out, and keeps moving forward.
Much has already been written on Collateral, from its vivid imagery to the rawness of its digitised look — at once enticing and haunting. Vincent poses a threat to Max’s idealised vision of tomorrow, but also an opportunity to start making things happen and not idle by.
2. Heat (1995)
What does one even say about what, in the eyes of many, is Mann’s magnum-opus?
Heat is the sum of many parts, but it doesn’t work without its two key pieces: Al Pacino and Robert de Niro. The duo, reunited together on a feature for the first time (and for the first time ever in the same scene/s) since The Godfather Part II (1974), Pacino and de Niro are two sides of the same coin.
Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley are like yin and yang — they don’t mix but they can’t function without one another. This speaks to Mann’s wider commentary on good vs evil, crime vs order which has been the focal point for 90% of his oeuvre. In Heat, Pacino and de Niro accentuate Mann’s fascination with these binary opposites to their full extent.
It’s as though these characters revel in the chase, of being the hunter and the prey, and they treat it like a drug that supersedes everything else in life. Mann brilliantly captures this through bright neon lights and the wider city which acts as its own sanctum that gives weight to the chase. Nothing is as beautiful as the city lights in a Mann film where cop cars race down the freeway in a storm of intensity.
But Heat is also made up of moments: the diner scene between Neil and Vincent is one of the greatest moments of character interaction in cinema history as these two men come face to face, pause the chase, and acknowledge each other; the downtown LA shootout where Mann shut down multiple blocks to shoot one of the most jaw-dropping scenes in any film ever; and the poignant finale where the two leads lock horns for the last time.
Without Heat, we may never have had The Dark Knight (2008), and that’s just one extra reason to watch this if you haven’t.
1. Miami Vice (2006)
I’m sure Miami Vice is a top-three Mann on anyone’s ranking of his work, but this bustling neo-noir about two under-cover detectives goes beyond the 80s show of the same name to become a gripping tale of people accepting that they’re living on borrowed time and learning how to manage the time they have left.
On the surface, Miami Vice is a buddy-cop thriller about two detectives infiltrating an offshore drug operation where they act as the middle-man between the international supplier and the local Miami buyer. Their mission is to find out who the buyer is, but the deeper they find themselves in the operation, the more they realise they’ll never have an opportunity like this again.
Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell are the two leads here and (while already the case with Foxx) they instantly fit the Mann-model of characters who don’t always play by the books, are good at what they do, and sometimes make rash, emotionally led decisions.
But it’s through Mann’s ability to capture the fleeting nature of life, the suddenness of a bust and the shootouts that ensue, where Miami Vice makes a case for his best film. There’s a dream-like tranquillity to the use of digital footage here that might just be the best example of creating evocative images in the digital format. From the bright hues of the nightlife and its clubs to the more intimate sensual moments, there’s a sense of liveliness and temporality mixed together in the film’s visual language.
Mann’s growing fascination with the commodification and expendability of the human body really started gaining momentum here as well. Whether it be in the film’s final shootout where bodies drop at a whim or the use of people as shields for getting what you want (drugs, cash, obedience), it’s an aspect of his films that really does speak to how precious those moments of human interaction are for his characters when they do have them.
Marvel (by way of Star Wars and Rick and Morty), the surprising third instalment in the Ant-Man franchise, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023), is one of the most enjoyable and cohesive Marvel films in years, and a great entry point into the new Phase of the universe. With a wildly inventive world that enchants and inspires awe, Quantumania manages to create something that’s been lacking from Marvel of late: pure imagination and efficient storytelling.
Quantumania kicks off with a return to the Lang family. Scott (Paul Rudd) is touring his ant-pun-filled memoir; Hope (Evangeline Lily) is running the company to improve many noble causes from affordable housing to environmental rehabilitation; Hank (Michael Douglas) and Janet (Michelle Pfieffer) are reunited and retired; and Cassie (Kathryn Newton), now 18, is getting arrested protesting the police for tearing down displacement camps. The surprising heart of the film, Cassie both sparks the plot by creating a beacon to the Quantum Realm, as well as the thematic (socialist uprising via ants combats tyranny in a blockbuster? A+) and emotional story that is never beholden to other properties. The speed in which we are thrown into the world is appreciated and economical, especially in comparison to recent superhero films that have felt bloated and undercooked.
The Rick and Morty-fication of Marvel is complete in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, with longtime comedy writer Jeff Loveness (Jimmy Kimmel Live, Rick and Morty) given sole screenwriting credit here. Previous Rick and Morty writers landing at Marvel include Jessica Gao (She-Hulk: Attorney at Law), Michael Waldron (Loki, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Avengers: Secret Wars), and Loveness. This connection to the cult TV show is felt particularly through its world-building and humour, as Loveness and Reed are clearly having a blast creating these unique quantum aliens, from snail horses to amoeba buildings and freedom fighters, all with a visual and comedic flair that feels considered. The parallel is also felt in its storytelling, as Loveness is able to craft an efficient and entertaining film that works independently of its outside world, maintaining a coherent thematic pull with compelling characters that feel genuinely changed through the experience.
Fears were rising that, with the emergence of the multiverse and glut of recent Marvel products, regular movie fans would be left in the dust. Thankfully, Quantumania is a refreshingly standalone film and a great entry point for this new phase of Marvel. The briskness of the storytelling allows you to get swept up in the world-building and creature design, sharing the sense of wonder Scott and Cassie have for the Quantum Realm. We are shown many sides to this new realm, from its refugee camps to its high society bars inspired by the Star Wars cantina (I was shocked not to have an original tune playing when they entered the room), all fully realised. The craft and consideration here are leagues ahead of recent entry Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), where the biggest leap in the boundless opportunity of multiversal storytelling was an Earth where green means stop.
Director Peyton Reed, hot off helming a couple of great episodes of The Mandalorian, returns to complete his highly improbable but all-enjoyable Ant-Man trilogy. The list of directors crafting a full trilogy is short, with Reed joining Spider-Man directors Sam Raimi and Jon Watts on the superhero trilogy front. Through a consistently robust supporting cast, the Rudd-helmed franchise has always felt light on its feet and affable, mirroring its star.
Reed’s Ant-Man films thrive more in the conversational moments, both in comedy and tension than when action is required. Early entries allowed the action set pieces to play out like big-budget Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989)homages, but in Quantumania, the action feels taken straight from the Marvel assembly line, with its rapid cuts, poor blocking, and hand lasers. Fortunately, Reed seems aware of these shortcomings, as the film does not rely on these moments for its crescendos, opting instead for more personal battles against Kang the Conqueror.
Jonathan Majors, the greatest recruit into the Marvel acting army thrives as the ominous but deeply felt villain Kang the Conqueror. Acting alongside Michelle Pfieffer for many scenes, Majors uses his physicality and always surprising depth of feeling to keep Kang more interesting and compelling to the audience, allowing him to balance out the film in ways we rarely see in Marvel villains. There is a tension and friction to his scenes that allows other actors to occupy space to play off of Majors, instead of merely dominating every moment of screen time, a rare gift to be used in a blockbuster film. The next Avengers film, Kang Dynasty (2025), is more likely to match the quality of Endgame with the emerging A-lister at its core.
No one would’ve imagined back in 2015 that Reed and Rudd would be completing a trilogy of Ant-Man films in 2023, with the third entry becoming crucial to the wider Marvel project with the emergence of Johnathan Majors’ Kang as the next Avengers villain (Loki appearance notwithstanding), let alone creating one of this quality. While still overfilled with messy CGI action set pieces, Quantumania thrives in its inventive world-building, with an economic and satisfying script by Loveness that allows its impressive ensemble to shine.
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumaniais in theatres now.
The only story more common in Hollywood than a film about filmmaking is an award-winning director cashing in a blank check to make a dream project they may never get the chance to do again. Babylon (2022), the new film by Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle, is an all-in movie for a filmmaker who knows the opportunity to make a big-budget, silent-era Hollywood romp with A-list stars will not come around again. We should be grateful the prodigious filmmaker chose to use seemingly every ounce of industry capital he had to get this oddball movie made, as even if the film isn’t great, there are enough transcendent moments, particularly early on, that makes it a ride worth taking.
Inside this whirlwind of frenetic Hollywood excess is a group of artists striving for their place in the moviemaking circus as it begins to transition from the silent era into the talkies. These include the star-to-be Nellie LaRoy (pitched to eleven Margot Robbie); a hustling upstart looking for his place in the movies and true heart of the film, Manuel Torres (Diego Calva); and ageing star with a waning grip on the top, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt); including a suite of other terrific performers in this frenetic tragicomedy that you won’t soon forget.
Calva is wonderful in the film and a true revelation, but the standouts for the film are Li Jun Li and Jovan Adepo, who play singer and artist Lady Fay Zhu and jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer respectively. Both characters are great in limited time, but even in a film of this width, their stories are sidelined too easily. There are essentially four films worth of story in Babylon, from Manny and Nellie’s rise, to Palmer’s rise in the industry that does not value him, to Lady Fay’s weaving through a constantly changing industry without the recognition she deserves, to finally Jack Conrad’s slow decline from the heights of stardom into irrelevancy. All these dense stories deserve more time than they are given, sidelined in favour of ambitious dalliances into the debauchery of the industry Chazelle seems so persistent to explore.
Surprisingly, given the long runtime, Babylon is stretched thin by its wide array of storylines. Jack’s story rarely interweaves with Nelly and Manuel’s, making them feel isolated. Chazelle’s previous films, Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016) work emotionally as two-handers between the leads, whilst here the key characters are oftentimes isolated from each other, striving for their own ambitious goals alone in a chaotic world. This is clearly by design, as Jack’s declining trajectory works alongside his divergence from the young upstarts who are looking to take over the budding talkies boom, but the film ultimately falters because of it.
Where Babylon never falters is in the deliriously bombastic score from Justin Hurwitz, which will no doubt pick him up another Oscar. This may be his crowning achievement as a film composer as Chazelle allows him room to dominate. Full of bombastic horns and drums that propel us into each scene with boundless energy, Hurwitz is the shining light in an uneven film with easily the year’s best score.
A surprisingly dark film visually, with Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren opting for a more natural use of lighting which heightens the dynamic contrast between the debaucherous night sequences and the bright daylight where the work gets done. This is most effective through the opening two sequences from the coke-fuelled bacchanalia prologue into the extended scene of manic moviemaking. It is clear this is where Chazelle finds himself most comfortable and where Babylon truly shines. Watching Manuel organise a mass of skid row extras for Jack’s war film or Nellie’s first day on set is electric, set to Hurwitz’s bombastic score, all within the ticking clock structure of the single day shoot, is one of the best sequences of the year. While I am always in favour of directors taking big ambitious swings when given the opportunity, there is a tinge of sadness that Chazelle moves away from these high points later in the film.
Chazelle has always been a filmmaker who wears his influences on his sleeve, which has been felt in the past, with Whiplash and of course La La Land, like a prodigious young filmmaker attempting to brush shoulders with both modern and canonical directors simultaneously. Here, the Oscar-winning director is working to rewrite the legendary Singin in the Rain (1952) as a tragicomedy structured somewhere between Scorsese classics Goodfellas (1990) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), or Paul Thomas Anderson’s braggadocio Hollywood epic Boogie Nights (1997). This is a lofty goal that is certainly appreciated, even if it doesn’t hit the mark consistently.
By wielding PTA as a key inspirational pole instead of the Boogie Nights director’s idol Robert Altman, Chazelle is playing a game of telephone with this style of film, ending up with a story with smoothed-over edges. Scenes of freneticism are shown cleanly, never feeling dangerous to the audience or its key players. Nellie and Manuel glide through manic scenes as smoothly as Sandgren’s graceful camera, creating a certain inevitability to their landing point that while interesting as a decision, ultimately flattens most defining sequences.
There are thematic depths to mine in Babylon, but they feel oftentimes short-changed in favour of larger set pieces. Manuel’s narrative of assimilation and identity is compelling and the most consistent thread being pulled throughout this 188-minute cinematic feast. We follow this immigrant story of a man who must essentially remove his nationality in pursuit of his ambitions within a rigid Hollywood system. Total annihilation of personhood for your art is something that clearly compels Chazelle as it is a key driver for his characters across his filmography, but it is here with Manuel that these themes truly land. We see him transform throughout the film, shifting into whiter clothing, changing his name to Manny more diligently, and even telling producers that he is Spanish, all in the hope that it gets him closer to his goal.
What separates PTA’s writing from Chazelle’s is ultimately what is lacking in a garish epic like Babylon: romanticism towards its characters. This does not mean fawning over them but treating them with respect and humanity that allows us to connect with them. Chazelle too often uses his characters as vessels for obsession and ambition in a primordial sense, making them kinetic and engaging, but rarely emotionally involving. The most personal moment of the whole film is wedged between its two great opening set pieces, as we see the modest living arrangements of Nellie and Lady Fay after seeing them command the attention of the lavish Hollywood party through their powerful charisma.
Chazelle has made a career of crafting sequences with wide dynamics, thrilling highs hard cut into crushing lows that usually work wonders like in Whiplash and La La Land. Unfortunately, adding to its issues with being stretched thin, these dynamics end up compressing the emotionality into dust.
The anguish-laden death march that consumes much of the second half sucks all air and exhilaration from the theatre, so the film is unable to coast off his own momentum as it languishes to its finale. This total fever dream opening into a death spiral has been done to great effect before (Boogie Nights and Goodfellas), but in Babylon the work on characters is less involved on a human level so the feeling is widely cheapened.
Ultimately, Babylon feels like a terrarium of meticulous detail about a revered moment in Hollywood history, with the edges sanded down to create a smooth glass dome. Even its finale, which is attempting a Godard-esque swing for the fences, feels strained. Authenticity was not the predominant goal of the film (this is not 2009’s The Artist but with coke), but somewhere along the way, the heart of the film was sidelined in terms of gawking ambitious set pieces. There are incredible sequences here that will be burned into my retinas to the tune of blaring trumpets, but you may not feel anything at the end.
With films returning to their native home of the theatre, 2022 delivered an interesting year of releases. Returning to some sort of cinema normalcy, even if the industry has been quite radically changed by Covid, the year has been full of quality films, including a large suite of self-reflexive stories from filmmakers old and new, to surprising and uber-entertaining box office hits, and the return to form for some incredible directors.
My 2022 list is surprisingly different to my most anticipated list from March, with Nope being on both lists, as my favourite works of the year came from unexpected places. This list includes two debut features (Hit the Road, Aftersun), a film from a filmmaker I’ve struggled with in the past (Armageddon Time), and a filmmaking blindspot I need immediately filled (Tár). While no five-star classics exist in this year of film, an impressive level of depth made this a difficult list to order and will no doubt change years from now. But for now, here is my list of the best films of 2022.
10. Hit the Road
A cheeky but politically and thematically resonant road trip dramedy of a young Iranian family attempting to smuggle their son out of the country to avoid military duty.
Panah Panahi, son of legendary filmmaker Jafar Panahi, is no stranger to the industry, but what he is still able to achieve on a debut feature is remarkable. Weaving in a deft political statement with a director well aware of where he is crafting his films, Hit the Road is elevated by a delightful and emotive family ensemble, centred by a lightning rod performance by Rayan Sarlak as the little brother.
9. Moonage Daydream
Filmmaker Brett Morgen, known for his wonderful 2015 documentary, Cobain: A Montage of Heck, declared this an experience about Bowie, not a biography of David Jones, and he truly delivered on this promise. Moonage Daydream (2022) is a deeply arresting piece of nonfiction cinema that operates as a mood piece that will be put up next to the very best in the genre.
The film weaponises its breathless propulsion in sly and interesting ways that sneaks up on you emotionally, much like Bowie’s very best work. It takes time to show its form to you, but once it does its effect is moving and profound. Morgen found something deeply relatable in his pursuit of capturing the figure of Bowie on film, unveiling a beautiful portrait of isolation for an artist that created community, showing us an image of the chameleonic legend that you won’t soon forget.
A master of humanist cinema, Hirokazo Kore-eda has crafted his most challenging makeshift family yet. Following a duo of child brokers of babies left at the local church’s baby box, Broker is complicated but deeply enriching in its portrayal of morality in the greyest of areas. Not of the same quality as Kore-eda’s Japan set masterpieces After Life (1999) and Shoplifters (2017), but is still one of the year’s best.
The film that grew on me the most this year. Peele has crafted a deeply engaging and entertaining riot of a sci-fi, Hollywood western that breezes through its first two acts to crescendo at a massive final act with a truly unique antagonist. While the film does lack in character work, its wielding of spectacle while also throwing those audience compulsions back in our faces is extraordinary, and is a brilliant use of the massive studio budget Peele is able to receive for these original stories.
6. Armageddon Time
Armageddon Time is emotionally devastating in ways that evolve beautifully over time, lingering long in the heart like a critical memory. What allows the emotion to thrive is the outstanding cast that could all individually contend come awards season. A gorgeous ensemble that introduced layers of nuance and understanding to each character over the runtime, highlighted by Banks Repeta and Anthony Hopkins.
5. Everything Everywhere All at Once
Floating along a constant stream of intertextuality, self-referentiality, and reverence to the films that paved the way to gift this film into audiences’ laps—The Matrix (1999), In The Mood for Love (2000), any Charlie Kaufman film—Everything Everywhere feels like a cinematic miracle that is at risk of breaking at any point.
Everything Everywhere is a technical marvel of small-budget filmmaking, from its mind-blowing costume and production design to its sound design and visual effects, but the real hero of the film is editor Paul Rogers. Rogers’ work here is nothing short of miraculous. Tasked with building a feverish momentum for over two hours while having each individual emotional moment land with as much impact as each comedic or absurdist one. Rogers moulds the filmmaking duo’s creative madness into a deeply resonant and enjoyable work, not just another overly ambitious indie that feels more like a creative dare than a work of art with deep truths. Don’t take for granted what an achievement this film is.
The debut feature of the year (in a uniquely stacked debutant class), Charlotte Wells’ memory drama of a young father bringing his 12-year-old daughter on a holiday to Turkey is so beautifully crafted, teeming with empathy and respect for the perspectives of both individuals’ experiences. Paul Mescal is enthralling in the year’s best performance as Calum, a tortured bird that must force himself to put up a front to protect his daughter. There are some ideas explored in Aftersun, like the fear of parents with mental illnesses handing it down somehow to their child, that will obliterate you. Wells wields a flexible script that is explored with care and restraint that is extraordinary for a first-time feature filmmaker, making her the director to watch in the next few years.
3. The Fabelmans
Spielberg’s whole heart is on the screen, warts and all. What makes The Fabelmans succeed is its lack of pure saccharine while still maintaining his signature warmth. The power of Spielberg’s clear-eyed and impassioned filmmaking, mixed with Kushner’s deft hand at profound characterisation, allows the audience to see themselves in every character. This is as much a film about Mitzi and Burt as it is about Sammy, with Kushner able to establish an extraordinary amount of emotional depth out of these personal stories for Spielberg whilst never feeling overly soft or cruel to their lives.
2. The Banshees of Inisherin
A densely compacted fable on friendship, breakups, art, passions, and how one chooses to spend a life, that is never less than wonderfully entertaining. A brilliant balancing act that consistently grounds itself in the earth of its characters, never allowing its more ethereal themes to float into wistful abstraction. McDonagh is at the top of his game both as a writer and director here, allowing the non-dialogue-heavy moments to shine as much as the musicality of his feckin’ barbs.
McDonagh has grown exponentially as a visual storyteller, allowing his sharp pen to relax and using the other aspects of cinema to communicate his themes and ideas in deeply rewarding ways.
In a year without a true five-star film, several films on this list could have made it to number one, and perhaps in a couple years this order will change, but as of posting, this film has a way of burrowing into my subconscious and bubbling up every other day. American films just aren’t like this anymore. A provocative thriller that has no easy answers that will have you enthralled over its long but rewarding 158-minute runtime.
Todd Field returns after a 16-year absence from the cinema with the year’s best film about a deeply flawed figure that’s warts are shown under a fierce precision, never allowing a scene to end with an easy answer. Tár is a tangled web of clashing ideas that have sparked some of the best film writing around an American film in who knows how long. Field has crafted a film of ideas that gives nothing to the audience easily, but rewards all who view this strange and entrancing object.
Tony Gilroy described the film as “hard and perfect on the outside. Mayhem brewing within. Masterwork.” These competing forces of interiority and external poise are the powerful tempest that builds throughout Tár, creating a singular viewing experience, and one of the year’s best films.
Honourable Mentions: After Yang, Barbarian, Crimes of the Future, Kimi, Top Gun:Maverick, RRR, The Northman, and Lingui
Avatar: The Way of Water preview screening provided by Disney
In a year where caped crusaders have played second fiddle to F18’s and dinosaurs, Avatar: The Way of Water sees James Cameron swimming in his exclusive pool of opportunity; a sandbox style, open world, video game feeling film that is as hearty as it is beefy. Cameron, unsurprisingly, is no stranger to pushing the boundaries of what a high concept blockbuster looks like. Setting the trend with The Terminator (1984), he’s always been out to entertain first, and worry about everything else second. The Way of Water speaks to that sentiment and culminates in a sensory experience unlike any at the cinema this year.
This is, after all, a film that —like the original Avatar (2009) before it— places an emphasis on out-of-body living, on connecting with the surrounding world and learning how to nurture and care for it. Cameron, an environmental activist in his own right, made Avatar and has pursued these sequels in part because he sees them as an opportunity to raise more awareness about our own world and environment.
In The Way of Water, he follows similar concerns to that of the first film, but trades the fullness of the foresty terrain, for the breadth and depth of the oceanic surroundings. The Na’vi continue to thrive, with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) now leading the tribe alongside his partner Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). They also have a few mini-Sully’s of their own: two sons —Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton)— and a daughter, Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). They also care for Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) who has a connection to Weaver’s character from the first film, but one that is kept intentionally vague.
The actual events of the film take place some 10 years after those of the first one. Humans continue to arrive to Pandora to harvest resources, and are even continuing to create avatars of their own. One of those is Colonel Miles Quartich (Stephen Lang), whose DNA and memories have been imbued in one of the lab grown blue beings to the point where he acts and talks like the Colonel in the first film, but he’s not him per se.
In essence, the stakes feel similar: Jake and co are on the backfoot while the Sky People pursue and hunt them. Sometimes the actual motive behind this continued hunting isn’t explained all that clearly — the Colonel seems to have retained the same grudge for Sully in his avatar form as he had in his human form, but beyond that, the plot plays out like a game of hide and seek. Most of that hiding happens in the distant islands far off the mainland, where other tribes reside and have grown and learned the way of water. A good chunk of the film is spent leading up to Sully’s retreat into this unseen part of Pandora, but once out in open waters, the film opens up both visually and sonically.
Cameron has a penchant for anything aqua related, and it shows in these deep diving areas. The flora and fauna pop in ways that make one believe this world is tucked away somewhere in our own oceanic backyard. Maybe seeing all of this unfold through Cameron’s other love, 3D, might have heightened the immersion? But there is an evident care for this world that entraps and allures you, and makes you believe it’s real, if but for a split second.
It helps that the frame rate is bumped up to 48fps at certain parts. Character movements are crisp and almost life-like, where there is a fluidity to the motion. This is especially noticeable in the underwater portions of the film that are as visceral as they are breathtaking, with colours popping out like a Van Gogh painting as you try and absorb each section of the frame.
Cameron makes it easy to care for these characters, who have more nuance splashed across their digital faces and more realness behind their big anime-like eyes, than any of the beings before and since Avatar. The technology is a large reason why this film works, because there just hasn’t been anything like it in cinemas previously, Avatar included. The film’s weakest link tends to be anything that isn’t digitised to the gills, like the Tarzan-esque boy Spider (Jack Champion) who was left an outcast and was essentially adopted by the Sully’s. While the film justifies his presence, it’s more jarring to spend time with anything that isn’t wholly CGI.
Cameron’s brilliance ultimately rests in his unmatched understanding of scale — of how to get all of his story points in a basket while showcasing them in the biggest way possible. He swiftly transitions from moments of bonding and connection between tribes and creatures, to large battles sequences involving these tribes and creatures as they glide over the ocean. You might not end up caring for the whale like Tulkin beasts that end up playing a more vital role in the plot than anything else, but it’s enough to believe that Cameron does. It’s a large reason he takes so long with these films, and especially with The Way of Water, as he finds that balance between telling a story about big blue people and everything in between that’s worth caring about, with the trailblazing action and scenery on display.
Even if the plot is very akin to that of the original film, The Way of Water is a sum of all of Cameron’s experiences and experiments up until now, where he pours his heart and soul into each and every frame, as though this could be the last ride in Pandora even with most of the sequels penned and planned out. The Way of Water hits like a tidal wave, and it’s worth getting drenched for.
Hollywood is littered with examples of filmmakers getting into relationships with an actor on set, causing friction with the rest of the production, as well as stoking a spectacle of drama and conflict that almost always overshadows the work. Most famous of this occurring was Ingrid Bergman’s affair with Roberto Russellini, which was unveiled just before the release of their film Stromboli (1950).
Don’t Worry Darling is the rare film where the situation involved a female director, with all the nuances that come with that difference. There will no doubt be tomes written about this production, but, for now, let’s simply discuss the text itself.
After the rapturous acclaim of 2019’s Booksmart, there was a bidding war for the follow-up feature of Olivia Wilde and screenwriter Katie Silberman, who have returned with one of the most confusing and underbaked films in years. Where their debut was an enjoyable yet frictionless teen comedy, Don’t Worry Darling is a big swing, period thriller that is after sweeping ideas on the modern world. Ideas that become exceedingly unclear the further away you get from the theatre.
Taking place in the 1950s, in a company town for the mysterious corporation Victory that is driven to create a new world, helmed by visionary Frank (Chris Pine), Don’t Worry Darling centres on young newlyweds Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles). The couple is very much in love and can barely keep their hands off each other.
As Jack goes off to work (at the same time as the rest of the men on the street in one of many gorgeous sequences from cinematographer Matthew Libatique), Alice is left to clean and busy herself at home, which she seems content with. This seemingly ‘perfect’ life for Alice begins to come crashing down as she seeks to discover the town’s true nature and the work being done by Victory.
Don’t Worry Darling is intended as a social thriller but is lacking any clear vision or identity in its story, which causes issues with the well-intentioned and well-executed design of the film. It forces its themes and motifs to become immediately literal. The idea of Alice’s world crashing down around her is shown with an unexplained tremor while she and Jack are in the kitchen in the very first scene. Not every film needs to be subtle and coy with its storytelling, but it’s a crucial element to the thrillers Don’t Worry Darling is cribbing from, so when you remove that element from the story, you better be doing it to heighten another aspect to make it an enjoyable experience.
The film is also doing itself a disservice by avoiding the story’s more thriller and horror aspects, which were crucial pillars in similar films like The Stepford Wives (1975) and Rosemary’s Baby (1967). The film has lazily been compared to Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) due to its socially conscious thriller nature, however, what allows Get Out to thrive as a piece of social commentary is how it fits within the structures of the genre, something Don’t Worry Darling is sorely lacking.
Florence Pugh is doing the most with what the film offers, using her established skills at conveying palpable tension over the course of a film’s duration. Unfortunately, in contrast to Katharine Ross in Stepford Wives and Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, Pugh’s Alice is somehow always behind on what the audience knows, even when we are both unsure what’s going on. Perspective is usually the most important tool that is weaponised by filmmakers in these thrillers but is so muddled in this seemingly first-person narrative with Alice that the film becomes increasingly tiresome.
Pugh isn’t helped in the film by her partner in marriage, Jack, played by pop superstar Harry Styles. The pop star is a classic example of an arena-sized bundle of charisma and coiffed hair that is unable to translate into the film, offering nothing compelling in the crucial two-hander scenes he shares with Pugh. There is also a serious lack of chemistry between the pair which proves fatal in many of these romantic scenes.
Some of the controversy surrounding the film has been about Shia LaBeouf’s role as Jack shifting over to Styles late in pre-production, which would’ve been equally as baffling a casting choice. That being said, with no hints towards spoilers, the final reveal makes the casting of Styles so utterly bizarre and only emphasises the baffling decision.
To Wilde’s credit, she has created a lush aesthetic with a suite of impressive visual flourishes with the help of Libatique and production designer Katie Byron, but it’s unfortunately always in service of a truly lacking script. There is much to like in the design of the film and will surely allow Wilde to take another bigger budget swing like this, hopefully with a tighter and more compelling story.
However, Don’t Worry Darling is so smugly showing off its production design and recreation of 1950s America, instead of placing the story within its lavish designs. This is no better exemplified than in the opening minutes of the film where we are shown Alice’s hallucinations. No time is spent establishing the baseline world we find ourselves in before the film is trying to upend it. This would be an interesting decision if the film chose to do anything with the extra time afforded by speeding through the standard opening to most thrillers, but it doesn’t.
The film is caught up in its own withholding plot structures that never let the ideas ferment in any way. Everything feels surface level because to address the nature of the film would be giving the game away. It’s hard not to see the film in a similar way to M Night Shyamalan’s unsuccessful films like The Happening (2008) or 2015’s The Visit (although that movie has been reclaimed since release), but even that honestly feels like a compliment.
By withholding its reveal until the end, the film doesn’t allow itself to examine the implications of the world it has spent two hours crafting, preferring instead to leave the audience shocked. We are instead left confused by these decisions. In a film so heavy-handed in its choice of motifs (there is enough humming and circular imagery in this film to die from sigh-induced exhaustion), is it confounding how little air is given to its final revelations.
Don’t Worry Darling’s central issue is ultimately the striving to be a discourse movie for 2022, but without any modern ideas worth exploring. There isn’t anything new here that wasn’t explored in feminist texts 60 years ago (the film does not deserve the waves of feminist retaliatory think pieces it will stoke). This wasn’t an issue with the filmmaker’s previous film Booksmart, a low-stakes, fun teen comedy that was without friction, opting to always play it safe socially and politically.
In Don’t Worry Darling, however, Wilde and Silberman are attempting to grasp at something outside their reach. One of the most exciting things Hollywood can do is give a large budget to give creatives the opportunity to take risks. Whether those risks land or not is up to audiences to decide. Don’t Worry Darling is a strange mix of massive risks and unfortunate turns to safety that will ultimately leave you somewhere in the flat, uninteresting middle.