Saturday, March 19, 2016

Madadayo, Used DVDs! #13: Kathryn Bigelow's THE WEIGHT OF WATER

As the cliche goes - and cliches have a basis of truth for a reason - maybe the book was better (and oddly enough my wife apparently has read six other books by the author of The Weight of Water, Anita Shreve, and even owns but hasn't read the book of this one, but that's neither here nor there except that it is not exactly an obscure author or book).

This is sort of a hard review to write because Kathryn Bigelow is an important filmmaker.  I think her work would be vital and crucial to the modern history of American film regardless of sex and if she was a he, born maybe, uh, Karl or something.  But it'll be hard for people in the future to know what a big deal it was for any woman, let alone Bigelow, to finally get directing + picture Oscars for The Hurt Locker after years of not really making that many films, and often seemingly of Hollywood action disposables (though it wasn't that at all, with works of genre art like Near Dark and Strange Days being very much a cut above the rest, and even a seemingly "dumb' movie like Point Break being fantastic at what it was trying to be).

She's immensely gifted and will continue to bring works that I'm sure will deal with the dark passages of the (usually violent) American consciousness.  So it pains me to say that this film she made and has sort of been forgotten isn't very good - this is one of those times where I hate having to put down a movie, but it almost leaves me with no choice.

Matter of fact, The Weight of Water has a pretty shitty script.  And I don't necessarily mean that it's in all of the characters; I can certainly see what a director would see in this material (whether Bigelow read the book first or the script I haven't the slightest, and who knows what happens in post production if one doesn't have final cut).  It's about a newspaper photographer named Jean (Catherine McCormack) who goes to a small island in New England to investigate an old murder from the late 19th century where a man was hung for killing two women who were immigrants.  She's joined by her husband (Sean Penn) as they visit his brother and his lady friend who is sort of unexpected by Jean (Elizabeth Hurley).  And over the course of seemingly several days (or it could be over a week, or two, I'm not sure) she tries to dig a little deeper while it seems as if temptations from Penn's character towards Hurley may be happening... or not, or whatever.

The scenes on the little boat with the four characters, at least on the whole, held my attention the most through the film.  This is almost despite (or in spite of maybe) that there really isn't much story here, or at least compared to the other story set in 1873 (with Sarah Polley and Ciran Hinds playing the woman who seemed to witness it all and has her own story of being a loveless marriage and sadness on this rocky coast, also the sister of the slain women, and the guy who is the accused).  I think I just enjoyed seeing these intellectual(ish) adults talk about Penn's character's poetry and past wounds that are so just under the surface that they come out without too much effort, and the sensuality is at a high pitch as well.  I was reminded of and I wondered if Bigelow had seen Polanki's Knife in the Water, which is is also about head-games taking place in a slow-burn style on a little boat (only there was triangle instead of a quad..rangle, if that's what it's called).

It helps that the actors are cast well, with Josh Lucas in a good early role (funny that he returns to this review series after a VERY different role in Stolen, but I digress) and Hurley cast so ideally that in a strange way it almost seems TOO easy.  Yes, she can play the super-sexy lady of any man's dreams, but is it going too far over the top, even for salacious material, that she sucks on an ice cube while sunbathing topless on the top deck of the boat for Sean Penn's squinty eyes to take a gander at?  Maybe not, but it's a strange choice all the same when contrasted with what the movie is supposed to be doing.  At the same time I welcomed these visual distractions and sort of mild-serious psychological twistings of this marriage-gone-south between McCormack and Penn and the mostly nice and hot relationship of Lucas and Hurley... when compared with the other story.

The central problem of this movie, and one that gets amplified so loudly in cinematic bold type that it becomes wearying, is that the two stories just don't mesh well together.  The 1873 scenes by themselves are not leading to anywhere that is unpredictable, and on the contrary it's easy to see where it's at a mile away; it's ironic that this part of the story, which is full of elements like incest and adultery and (maybe-yes) lesbianism and damnation should be so bloodless.  It's not even that it's dull all the time - some of the time, yes, it is, and I wasn't sure in certain scenes if Polley's droopy eye-lid was some odd thing at the time or if she was just tired from the material - and it's sad that I should feel that from such a good actress and Hinds as a very good presence and solid throughout his turn here.  But there's not much to actually explore.

Meshing the present story of this woman in a turbulent marriage and in a desperate this-mystery could-be-cracked where it pops up and then falls away and then the intercutting becomes pointless.  One may be, or I was, of The Neverending Story, where the character finds the parts of the story that we then see, but this is so intermittent as to not matter.  But the two stories have little flow from one scene to the next, and while I can admire the performances in chunks and sometimes the dialog is written convincingly (though in some other instances definitely not), the pace of it drags so incredibly that by the time the two stories are meant to COLLIDE in such a way as if the "actual" murders and the BIG storm-against-the-ship set piece happens, I realized I was witnessing a fucking mess of a movie.

When I say a mess I don't necessarily mean only the climax either; I can point to the script and say this works and this really doesn't and down the line, however it's also Bigelow that can deserve some blame here.  She is really terrific with most of the actors here - Polley is the only one kind of hit or miss, sometimes excellent sometimes adrift with the material - but stylistically I wondered if she was experimenting... too much.  This is the kind of movie where we see the "INTENSE" flashbacks of someone's interior headspace reflecting on murders or things at night like the house or the shoreline in time-lapse, and it's in black and white and in crazy shifts of perspective and the lighting gets deranged and I just didn't buy it.

This isn't the technique in these moments of a solid professional, it's the work of some film school student trying out shit that doesn't stick with the material.  And she may have been wanting to spread a little bit, and of course she's experimented film after film (and hell, the reason Strange Days is so masterful is because she went the extra distance with a number of choices).  But this isn't one of those times.   The Weight of Water is like listening to a friend who has something burdening their mind and over a couple of hours you hear it and go... 'wow, what the hell was that?'  Ironic further that one of the acclaimed female directors of the world, nevermind America, has her two films with female protagonists be her weakest efforts (this and Blue Steel).  

PS: This may be me reading into something that is not there at all, but I wonder if the casting of Hurley is very personal for Bigelow... if you see pictures of the director as a younger person, she looks a LOT like Hurley.  And to this day she's very attractive and in her SIXTIES.  Or maybe it's the two women on that little boat, the smart, go-getting intellectual one and the sultry-questionable other one... hmmm.....

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