Contagion and inner demons run rampant in three new movies
Brian D. JohnsonJune302003
DISEASE, MONSTERS AND METAPHOR
Contagion and inner demons run rampant in three new movies
BRIAN D. JOHNSON
AT THEIR BEST, movies are like dreams, or nightmares. And the cinema is a kind of Freudian observatory, a collective couch where we can see our fears, fantasies and cravings writ large. So often filmmaking is just the art of magnifying the repressed urge, offering a vision of what might happen if it were left unchecked. At least that’s the case with Hulk, 28 Days Later and Owning Mahowny, three wildly different tales of pathology from three distinct cultures.
Hulk and 28 Days Later are both about infections of violent, uncontrolled rage that result from laboratory experiments gone awry. In 28 Days Later, a stylish horror film from Britain, the rage is spread by a virus that threatens to wipe out civilization. In Hulk, a comic-book blockbuster from Hollywood, anger is channelled into heroism. Owning Mahowny is a movie from Canada about a quieter compulsion. It’s based on the true story of a Toronto assistant bank manager whose life—along with $10 million of siphoned bank funds—is consumed by an irresistible urge to gamble. These are all monster movies; it’s just that the demons take different shapes.
28 Days Later arrives with spooky timing. In an age of SARS, AIDS, monkeypox, mad cow and the terrorist “plague,” contagion has become a living metaphor for the times. Written by Alex Garland (The Beach) and directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting), this zombie thriller gives visceral form to our worst end-of-the-world fears. It opens with a grisly homage to the aversion therapy experiment in A Clockwork Orange. Animal rights activists break into a primate research lab where caged chimps are being bombarded by video images of horrific violence. As soon as they’re unshackled, the apes savagely attack their liberators. The animals, as it turns out, are infected by a virus that sends them into a psychotic rage, and that can be transmitted by the slightest drop of blood.
Cut to 28 days later. A bicycle courier named Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes from a
coma in an abandoned hospital, and walks out to find the streets of London eerily deserted and strewn with litter. Britain has been largely evacuated, but life lurks in the ruins, and before you can say Night ofthe Living Dead,
Jim is on the run from rabid hordes of “infected” persons. He finds refuge with a hardened survivor named Selena (Naomie Harris), a chipper taxi driver named Frank (Brendan Gleeson), and his daughter, Hannah (Megan Burns). After picking up an automated radio broadcast from an outpost of soldiers in Manchester, they drive off in search of salvation, like a perverse parody of an Eng-
lish family motoring through the countryside.
28 Days Later unfolds as agripping suspense film punctuated by gruesome violence, including a scene of a man plunging his fingers into another’s eye sockets. Shooting on digital video, Boyle also strives for a painterly, post-apocalyptic beauty, with images of artful devastation under sickly yellow skies. The movie is as much social statement as horror picture, but the message is hammered home somewhat crudely in the final act. The survivors end up at a country estate that has been turned into a military compound, run by a fascistic major (Christopher Eccleston)—Kurtz as head prefect in the boarding school from hell. His notion of “civilization” may be as barbaric as anything the zombies have to offer. And by the time a soldier asks, “What would you do with a diseased little island? ” it’s clear he’s talking about something in the blood that goes deeper than a viral infection.
Hulk is another sci-fi movie that tries to have it both ways—a tale of catastrophic infection that treats the immune system as metaphor. And it, too, involves a molecular
meltdown in an animal lab, as scientist Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) has his DNA rocked by a jolt of gamma radiation that turns him into an un-jolly green giant whenever he gets mad. But Hulk looks on the bright side of unfettered rage. Banner’s Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation into a towering super id serves as a kind of primal therapy, taking him
SO OFTEN FILMMAKING is just the art of magnifying the repressed urge, offering a vision of what might happen if it were left unchecked
back to his own private ground zero—a recovered memory of family horror as a child growing up in the desert amid lunatic military experiments.
This is one complicated cartoon character. Meanwhile, Banner’s lab-coated love interest, Betty (Jennifer Connelly), delivers a psychoanalytic play-by-play, with lines such
as, “emotional damage can manifest physically” and “a physical wound is finite but with emotions, what’s to say it won’t go on and on and start a chain reaction.”
Merging Freud, Jung, nuclear physics and immunology, Hulk has to be the most literate comic-book movie ever made. But then, it was directed by Ang Lee (The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and cowritten by his usual collaborator, film professor James Schamus. They may seem an unlikely match for Marvel Comics. But Lee has called Hulk his extension of Green Destiny, the mythical sword in Crouching Tiger. And as you watch a green Goliath battling a mutant poodle in a redwood forest, it plays like a Paul Bunyan version of Crouching Tiger’s duel in the bamboo.
It takes a while for Hulk to gain momentum. The first hour is sluggish, so convoluted with family history that you start to wonder if this will be the first action blockbuster with more talk than action. The film is a bit like the Hulk himself, a volcano on a slow boil. No matter how sophisticated the script, we’re still going to end up with a green
monster in tight shorts twisting tanks like taffy, and bounding across desert dunes like a jackrabbit on steroids. But even with such an ungainly subject, Lee has a graceful touch. Whether depicting psychedelic spawns of DNA, or the Hulk popping out his socks, he directs with finesse, using split-screen visuals to accelerate the tempo. He doesn’t let the action upstage the actors, whose faces seem naturally cartoon-like. Oddly, most have thick, dark eyebrows—Bana, Connelly and Sam Elliott, who plays her father, Gen. “Thunderbolt” Ross. And even without effects, a shaggy Nick Nolte is rather Hulkish as Banner’s mad-scientist father, who unleashes a priceless Lear-like rant. By the time Hulk reaches its thermo-biblical climax, no one can complain that this is a macho blockbuster with no substance. Call it Crouching Ego, Hulking Id.
Owning Mahowny is about another man possessed by destructive forces, but he’s what you might call the opposite of a comic-book hero—almost smaller than life. A CanadaU.K. production, written and directed by British filmmaker Richard Kwietniowski (Love and Death on Long Island), the movie is based on the best-selling book by Toronto journalist Gary Ross, Stung: The Incredible Obsession of Brian Malony (1982). And the discrepancy between “Mahowny” and “Malony” in the titles indicates that the film takes some liberties with this true story of a compulsive gambler who was convicted of embezzlement in 1982. But no one is more amazed at how faithful the film is to the book’s spirit than its author—“They actually got it right,” Ross told me.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is immaculately cast as Dan Mahowny, a mild-mannered nerd of an assistant bank manager. Siphoning funds via bogus loans, he digs himself deeper and deeper into debt as he places bets on everything that moves: sports, ponies, cards, dice, roulette. Mahowny has no interest in what money will buy, only the opportunity to play with it. Soon he’s commuting between two heavily guarded temples of cash—the grey marble world of a Toronto bank and the seductive glitter of a casino in Atlantic City. At home, he keeps embezzling money to pay off a seedy but avuncular bookie (Maury Chaykin). And in Atlantic City, as he slaps down six-figure bets at the tables, a smarmy casino boss (John Hurt) tries to pamper this eccentric client as if he were a prize thoroughbred. The casino offers him hookers and
gourmet food, but all he wants is “ribs, no sauce and a Coke.”
In the wings is Mahowny’s devoted girlfriend, Belinda, a clerk at his bank, who’s distressed by his habit but has no idea how far it goes. Played by an almost unrecognizable Minnie Driver, Belinda’s character seems straitjacketed by the cliché of a wide-eyed, gullible enabler. It’s hard to imagine what chemistry holds her and her man together. But then, most of the characters who surround Mahowny lack dimension. When you come down to it, this is a one-man show. Our pleasure lies in watching Hoffman’s consummate performance, as he enacts the slow-motion train wreck of a man who is so self-effacing, so intensely focussed on The
Game, that the drama consists of simply watching him sweat, or swallow uncomfortably during an awkward pause.
I happen to love watching a character gamble his life away, but Owning Mahowny felt like an especially perverse kick. As I left the theatre, quite satisfied, I thought this picture’s not going to make a dime. In the casino of moviedom, it’s a lost bet. Unlike those fleshy Hollywood fables of men with secret lives—from A Beautiful Mind to Catch Me If You Can—it’s not a flamboyant tale of redemption. The drama is a narrow, one-way street. And Hoffman is no Russell Crowe or Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s just a brilliant American actor playing a repressed Canadian with a weakness for numbers. Hül
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