Tag: Frances McDormand

Nomadland (2020)

Nomadland (2020)

Poetic and surprisingly moving, this Best Picture winner is light on plot but deep on meaning

Director: Chloé Zhao

Cast: Frances McDormand (Fern), David Strathairn (Dave), Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells, Peter Spears, Derek Endres

We all have ideas about what life should look like in the 21st century. Settled job, dream home, the rooted life. It’s what we are expected to be working towards – but it’s not for everyone. Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s Malick-influenced road movie explores the lives of those who decide to live off that beaten track. The modern nomad, who chooses flexibility to move their home from place to place and don’t want to be tied down by bricks-and-mortar. It makes for a meditative, soulfully poetic film with a quietly mesmeric power.

Fern (Frances McDormand) is recently widowed, childless and has lost her job after the gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada closes. But, far from down-hearted, Fern is determined to lead a new life without the fixed commitments of her old one. She sells most of her possessions, kits out a van as a travel home and begins to drive across the country, taking seasonal jobs as and where she stops. She finds herself part of a warm and supportive community of nomads, who help to learn how to flourish in this unconventional home life.          

Nomadland winning Best Picture is as close as the Oscars have come to giving an award to Terence Malick. It’s hard not to feel his influence over the camera’s languid worship of the beauty of the Badlands, or its characters quiet searching for higher in life, via a communing with nature. Zhao’s film is a very effective and surprisingly moving character study, with only the smallest smidgen of a plot, but full of feeling. Radiantly shot by Joshua James Richards, it finds an orange-tinged beauty in a dawn and dusk and tiny moments of joy in rain falling in your face. All contrasted with the dull oppressiveness of buildings, those four walls shutting out nature.

Zhao’s film goes a long way in challenging neat assumptions we might have about this lifestyle. “I’m not homeless I’m houseless” Fern states and she politely – but firmly – turns down well-meaning offers of charity. The decision to move from place-to-place is not one enforced by poverty or failure. Instead, this is a rich, vibrant, supportive community that looks out for each other and share a legitimate (and refreshing) view of the world. Who says you need to spend your life chasing the dollar and building up a debt to have a fixed slice of real-estate you can sort of call your own?

This is particularly true in our post-recession world. Nomadland starts with the final collapse of an industrial community, now a ghost town. Many of the nomads find seasonal work that is often manual and low-skilled. Fern’s first job (of many) is working at an Amazon dispatch location, where jolly team leaders burst with enthusiasm met with smiling indifference by the (often older) staff. Fern’s travel is shaped around moving to key locations for seasonal work – Amazon, a campsite, a short-order chef job, beet processing… The economic situation is poor, but this is a way of playing the system to get a higher level of freedom, without debt or financial pressures.

It’s a key subject of a talk given to fellow nomads by Bob Wells, an influential advocate of the nomad life-style (one of any people playing versions of themselves). It’s part of a series of events at a nomad event – a sort of convention – where people gather to share experiences, advise and life-hacks. Ever needed to know how to change a tyre or what size bucket you should use for your built-in toilet? Wonder no more! On the road people come together in a way they never would in more regular life. With everything transient and nothing fixed, friendships and connections are more intense, constantly in that first glow of excitement.

That’s the pay-off of choosing this lifestyle. Everything is transient. Close friendships form, but you might not see the other person for months at a time. While phones help you to keep in touch, day-to-day you see completely different people from place-to-place. It will never be completely clear where you might be to your family. However, the short-lived intensity of connections can lead to a closeness and intimacy that might otherwise take months – a friend of Fern’s confides she has terminal cancer but regrets nothing, with a warmth and trust that would normally takes years to form not weeks.

It’s implied as well that the more short-lived intensity of friendships fits more with what the slightly taciturn and guarded Fern wants from life. Frances McDormand makes her friendly, ready with a smile, good company – but she is always slightly reserved and guarded. She will give sympathetic ears and invite confidences. But she is also a woman determined to live by her own rule. Having lived most of her life in one place in a happy marriage, a conversation with her sister (who bails her out with a loan to repair her van) reveals she was always prone to not look back when a decision was made. It’s the same with deciding to live on the road as moving to Empire – Fern knows her own heart and mind, and will fully commit to that.

This is despite temptations, the main one she faces being David Strathairn’s (the only other professional actor in the film) Dave, a fellow nomad who makes no secret of his romantic interest in her. Sweetly played by Strathairn, Dave pursues Fern and dangles the possibility of a more fixed and traditional life. They are close, but Fern has lived that life of marriage and rejected already the idea of a family. And, as McDormand makes clear in her soulful eyes, if that life was ever on the cards, it would have been with her husband not this new man, nice as he is.

Nomadland, like Fern, can see the dangers and problems. A van breaking down in the middle of nowhere is a major danger, a broken plate a potential disaster – Fern painstakingly reassembles it, not wishing to spend the money to replace it. Low temperatures and bad weather can make it uncomfortable – although she (smilingly) rejects an offer from a garage owner to sleep inside. But it also understands living this lifestyle is a legitimate choice, filled with rich possibilities. You only need to see Fern joyfully travel to the coast or get wrapped up in the embrace of the vibrant community she finds on the road to see that you could do immeasurably worse with your life.

Zhao’s film has a documentary realism to it, that comes from its deep immersion in real nomad communities. It makes copious use of real nomads playing versions of themselves, giving a rich feeling of authenticity to every moment. It also means we gain a real understanding of the idea that goodbyes are never final in this world, that there is always the prospect of seeing someone again “down the road”. The film’s poetic empathy, its warmth and the vibrant humanity of its characters makes it film that creeps up on you and has a surprising, but profound, power.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

Sexist, violent, crude and deeply disgusting. Transformers continues to make you weep for your childhood memories

Director: Michael Bay

Cast: Shia LaBeouf (Sam Witwicky), Josh Duhamel (Colonel William Lennox), John Turturro (Seymour Simmons), Tyrese Gibson (Robert Epps), Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (Carly Spencer), Patrick Dempsey (Dylan Gould), John Malkovich (Bruce Brazos), Frances McDormand (Charlotte Mearing), Kevin Dunn (Ron Witwicky), Julie White (Judy Witwicky), Alan Tudyk (Dutch Gerhardt)

I’m ashamed to say when I saw it in the cinema I sort of enjoyed it. Goes to show how the excitement of a trip out can make the most ghastly, horrible, vile piece of work feel like fun. Even at the time, I recognised enjoying Transformers: Dark of the Moon was like becoming engaged with the story-telling in a porno. Doesn’t change the fact it’s a crude exercise, pandering to your baser instincts.

The plot? Autobots. Decepticons. Blah, blah, blah. Don’t worry if you’ve not seen the previous films: this merrily contradicts them. In the 60s an Autobot ship crashes on the moon, the moon landings were all about exploring the wreckage. In the present day our “hero” Sam (a never more annoying, unlikable Shia LaBeouf) can’t land a job and the Decepticons hatch a plan to destroy the planet by bringing their homeworld Cybertron here. Former Autobot Boss Sentinal Prime betrays everyone. Optimus Prime doubles down on being a psychopath. It’s very loud and makes no sense.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon exposes Michael Bay’s aesthetics as those of a porn director. Everything is crude, huge, brash, obvious, tries to do as much work for you as possible and panders to your worst instincts. Dark of the Moon is shocking in almost every possible sense: from its crude sexism and leering camera, its revoltingly heavy-handed, end-of-the-pier, terminally unfunny comic relief, its overlong, explosive battle sequences (shot with the slavering longing of a pornographic gang-bang). Dark of the Moon is a revolting film, a disgusting perversion of what was a kids cartoon.

Can you imagine letting a child watch this? Let’s deal with its disgusting sexism first. Megan Kelly had been sacked between this and Revenge of the Fallen for denouncing Michael Bay’s working basis (I’ll admit calling him Hitler went too far). Every chance in the film to disparage her character is taken (two appallingly unpleasant tiny Autobots all but call her a bitch). She’s replaced by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, introduced walking up-stairs, the camera starting at her feet and trailing up, lingering on her bottom (she’s wearing just a slightly-too short shirt). Later two characters will discuss “the perfect curves” of a car – while the camera pans up her body. Those are only the most egregious of the deeply uncomfortable sexual objectification of this poor woman.

How about its crude humour? Several actors enter a private competition to give the loudest, least funny comic cameo. Malkovich gurns and rants as Sam’s pointless, kung-fu obsessed boss. John Turturro does whatever he wants as a Transformers obsessed former-agent. Kevin Dunn and Julie White are eat-your-fist levels of unfunny as Sam’s parents. Worst of all is Ken Jeung as a Deep Throat style informer whose every scene is crammed with homophobic jokes about anal and oral sex. Remember, once upon a time this was for kids. All this alleged humour does is add to the already bloated run-time. You’ll suffer through every single word, because you certainly won’t miss it due to laughing. Bay’s idea of funny is if the joke is delivered LOUD by a wild-eyed actor, preferably accompanied by a whip-pan. He’d probably love Roy Chubby Brown.

The film has two of the least likable heroes perhaps ever placed on film. Shia LaBeouf must have genuinely hated himself by the time he made this. Perhaps that’s why he makes no effort to make Sam even one per cent likeable. Sam is a whining, petulant man-child, alternating between bitching about his job to bragging about his trophy girlfriend (whom he spends half the film whiningly chasing). In the first of these films, LaBeouf had a goofy charm. Now the character is just a deeply arrogant little prick, with major entitlement issues. LaBeouf shouts and screams throughout, but mostly just looks really angry at himself for even being there.

Then we come to the pièce de resistance: Optimus Prime. When I was a kid, this noble warrior was like the perfect Dad. Traumatised kids wept when he died in the animated movie. Revenge of the Fallen started turning him into a violent killer. This completes the journey. Bay probably thinks Prime is a bad-ass taking names. He’s actually a violent, psychopathic killer who arrives at a battle with the inspiring words “We will kill them all”. Prime allows the whole of Chicago to be destroyed (at the cost of millions of lives) to prove a point to the stupid humans. At the film’s end he reacts to Megatron’s offer of a truce by ripping out his spine and then executes Sentinel Prime by shooting him point blank in the head while Sentinel pleads for his life. Ladies and gentlemen: our hero.

It’s customary to say the special effects are good, so: the special effects are good. The violence is pornographic, shot often in slow-mo, with explosions, fast editing and huge noise filling the screen. Transformer bodies are mauled, beheaded, eviscerated. There are several rather chilling executions. Prime rips out the equivalent of heart, lungs, eyes and brains. Bay adds a reddish oil to the transformers, which looks like blood spraying up. Just like the humour, the action goes on FOREVER. The final Chicago battle takes up fifty minutes of buildings falling, brutal slaughter and triumphalist flag-waving. After repeated viewings it’s not just boring, it starts getting offensive.

Dark of the Moon is, quite simply, only just (only, only, only just) better than Revenge of the Fallen – and it says it all that it’s because it’s not as racist. In every other sense it’s simply revolting: violent, crude, sexist and homophobic. This is a horrible, horrible film made by a soulless director. It genuinely is like a beautifully shot pornographic film that wants you to respect the craft that’s gone into it while you finish yourself off. For a brief few seconds you might get sucked in – but you’ll certainly not be boasting about it afterwards.

Almost Famous (2000)

Almost Famous (2000)

Cameron Crowe turns his youth into a hip coming-of-age film with just enough sting among the sentiment

Director: Cameron Crowe

Cast: Patrick Fugit (William Miller), Billy Crudup (Russell Hammond), Frances McDormand (Elaine Miller), Kate Hudson (Penny Lane), Jason Lee (Jeff Bebe), Zooey Deschanel (Anita Miller), Anna Paquin (Polexia Aphodisia), Fairuza Balk (Sapphire), Noah Taylor (Dick Roswell), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Lester Bangs), Terry Chen (Ben Fong-Torres), Jay Baruchel (Vic Munoz), Jimmy Fallon (Dennis Hope), Rainn Wilson (David Felton)

Cameron Crowe fictionalises his teenage years in the warm, affectionate Almost Famous, an endearing, heartfelt riff on the golden years of Rock ‘n’ Roll, when it felt like music could change the world and making the front cover of Rolling Stone was the greatest thing ever. Patrick Fugit plays William Miller (the Crowe substitute), a precocious 15-year-old would-be-music journalist recruited by Rolling Stone to write an article on Stillwater, an up-and-coming new band. Miller adores the music scene and is soon smitten with the lifestyle, Stillwater’s charismatic guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and most of all “Band Aid” (muse not groupie) Penny Lane (Kate Hudson).

Crowe’s film is a glorious reconstruction of the rock and roll scene of the early 70s – and I can imagine anyone with fond memories of it will find much to love here. It’s not just the fashions and hairstyles, but the glorious capturing of a mood. The whole film is a celebration of a time that felt freer and more idealistic, where the actions and words of a rock band could feel like the most important, beautiful thing in the world. The film is not just nostalgia but also a celebration of a mood of hopefulness that embodied an era.

It’s also a coming-of-age story, as a boy-becomes-a-man. Patrick Fugit is very endearing as a kid no one can quite believe is 15, even though every moment seems to hammer home his fresh-faced innocence. But then it’s not a complete surprise since, thanks to his strong-willed mother having moved him up a class at school and led him to believe he is older than he is. Nevertheless, this is the sort of trip that shapes someone, finding friendship, love, belonging, betrayal, righteous anger and acceptance along the way. All of this is backdropped by the shift of rock and roll becoming something corporations used to make a lot of money.

Stillwater are just on the cusp of this, still clinging to the fun of bussing from gig-to-gig, enjoying the mood, the songs and (of course) the girls. The film is also a celebration in a way of their coming-of-age, the tour starting in a ramshackle bus and ending on a sleek private jet, with accommodation switching from the bus to plush hotels. And along the way, they are trying to work out what they hell they are doing as much as William is. Perhaps that’s why the film feels like it captures the era so well – wasn’t everyone flailing around in the 70s trying to work out if they belonged to the hedonism of the 60s or what would become the Reagonism of the 80s?

But it’s still rock ‘n’ roll, best embodied by Billy Crudup’s charismatic turn as Band icon Russell Hammond. Crudup is all grungy magnetism and shuffling emotional gentleness under the surface of rock star swagger. Not that it stops him from moments of egotism, selfishness and pomposity. You can see why tensions are sometimes high in the band, with the rest of its members often seen as jut Russell’s support group (a band t-shirt causes fury when it shows Russell in the foreground with the other four as shadowy outlines behind him). Russell takes William under his wing, perhaps because he recognises the youth and fragility in William. Or maybe he just likes the hero-worship.

Because one of the dangers of getting close to these stars is getting sucked into hero worship. William is after all a journalist who needs to maintain objectivity. He’s even warned about it by his mentor, fabled music writer Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a charismatic cameo) that the biggest danger is succumbing to the charms of the celebrity: these are after all, people who have made it their mission in life to be liked. They’re going to be good at it.

Getting in their airspace can be a dangerous place, as discovered by leading Band Aid Penny Lane, played with a luminous, radiant warmth by Kate Hudson. Penny is a devoted fan, enraptured with being part of the scene and with her self-proclaimed role as muse to the artists. Based on a personal friend of Crowe’s – and, one supposes, his real-life first love – it’s Penny who draws William into this life, looks out for him, cares for him (a favour he is to return in kind). She starts an affair with Russell – but is banished when Russell’s girlfriend rejoins the tour, jokingly traded in a card game with another band for a crate of beer (a reveal Hudson plays with a beautiful mix of devastation and valiant nonchalance). It’s not that Russell’s a bad guy, more that he can’t cope with complexities.

So, you can see why William’s Mum – played with a larger-than-life mix of bullish determination, smothering love and control-freak determination by Frances McDormand – is so worried about him. It’s a sign of the film’s overall warmth (and Crowe’s well-adjusted personality!) that McDormand’s character is treated with the same affection and admiration as everyone else and the love between mother and son is never in doubt. She is responsible for some of the film’s highlights, not least a phone call to Russell where her natural authority quickly reduces him to the overgrown schoolboy he is at heart.

And Almost Famous is a very funny film, riffing off various true life rock-and-roll road trip stories, from raucous parties to accidental electrocutions, like a slightly straighter version of Spinal Tap. It’s capped by a hilarious near-disaster plane flight, where the end seems in sight, leading to a series of ‘confessions’ that become more and more heated and factious as they go on. It’s a film that shows some of the warts of the characters – just as William’s article eventually will for Stillwater – but also their many, many beauty spots. People make mistakes and hurt each other, but life goes on – and we take the punches, but they don’t define us.

Perhaps that’s a big part of growing up: and it’s a growing-of-age film for three characters: William, Penny and Russell. All three of these characters find themselves drawn together, all of them spiritually so close. They hurt each other, betray each other, but they all love each other. It’s a hopeful message, a glorious celebration of a time and era.

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

The Tragedy of Macbeth header

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand are the Macbeths in this brilliant, noirish, superb Shakespeare film

Cast: Joel Coen

Director: Denzel Washington (Lord Macbeth), Frances McDormand (Lady Macbeth), Corey Hawkins (Macduff), Brendan Gleeson (King Duncan), Harry Melling (Malcolm), Bertie Carvel (Banquo), Alex Hassell (Ross), Kathryn Hunter (The Witches), Moses Ingram (Lady Macduff), Ralph Ineson (Captain), Stephen Root (Porter), Miles Anderson (Lennox), Jefferson Mays (Doctor)

Shakespeare on screen is difficult to pull off. Focus too much on the language and you end up with something more theatrical than cinematic. Zero in on the visuals and you lose what makes Shakespeare great in the first place. That’s not even to mention that films – with their huge audiences – tend to focus on simple, more traditional interpretations of a play that add little to interpreting it afresh. These are all problems avoided by Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth which is bloody, bold and resolute and jumps straight into the upper tier of great Shakespeare films. Inventive, dynamic, gripping and excellently acted it succeeds in being both a creative production of the play and something truly cinematic.

Shot in a crisply clean black-and-white, the 4:3 frame frequently filled with rolling mist and stark white light (it’s superbly shot by Bruno Delbonnel), this is a Macbeth set in a Jan Kott inspired Samuel-Beckett-tinged wasteland, with Scotland a bleak, blasted country, its characters leading lives full of sound and fury that signify nothing. The Macbeth’s castle is an Esher like construction of perfectly formed empty rooms, towering walls and arches casting grim shadows and open ceilinged rooms allowing onlookers to observe everything. There are brilliant images: not least the handle to Duncan’s door which is strikingly lit to resemble a knife. Characters frequently emerge from the mist or the darkness to walk towards us and confess their darkest thoughts.

No Shakespeare film has better used set and location since Orson Welles’ Othello – a film this is sharply reminiscent of, with its brilliant use of angles and shade that constantly disconcerts the viewer (even leaving us confused at points on whether we are looking down or up). Coen also seems to have been inspired by Peter Brook’s grimly nihilistic King Lear film, with this Scotland being trapped firmly in a circle of destruction powered by the witches. All three are played by Kathryn Hunter, whose contortionist twisting and ability to switch her vocals on a sixpence from sing-song to a Gollumesque growl make them truly feel of the earth and yet not. Hunter is inspired casting – sometimes representing all three witches in a single schizophrenic body, at others playing all three at once. A brilliant image at one point shows her double reflection in a watery pool, turning her body immediately into a trinity.

Hunter’s movement is birdlike and agile – fitting since it’s suggested the witches can transform themselves into carrion crows, flying over Scotland picking bones clean of fresh. The first image is the three birds circling the Captain as he walks slowly across a beach to report to Duncan. Later Hunter perches on a crossbeam in another opened-ceiling room, subtly poking Macbeth on to greater monstrosities. There is a cycle of destruction here – and the film’s ending implies all this chaos is bound to start again.

Crucial to this is Ross. Following Polanski’s Macbeth – and again heavily inspired by Jan Kott – Alex Hassell’s unctuous Ross, ingratiates himself with all while happily engaging in acts of brutality. He personally executes Cawdor (by beheading), joins Banquo’s murderers, shows the way to the sacking of Macduff house and hands Malcolm both the crown and Macbeth’s severed head. But Coen takes it further again: rather than a cruel opportunist, this Ross seems to be an agent of the witches – or maybe even a witch himself. Hassell’s costume, with its curiously feminine robe and wing-like arms, echoes the witches and Ross moves smoothly from side-to-side even in the final acts, planting seeds of further destruction (including further implied murders) and collaborating directly with the witches to restart the cycle at the end.

All this makes Macbeth and Lady Macbeth at times feel like rather tragic puppets at the heart of a terrible cycle of events they cannot control. It certainly fits with Denzel Washington’s balanced and intelligent performance in the lead. While Washington doesn’t mine as much weight and meaning from the text as the great stage Macbeths, he gives his line readings an unstudied naturalism and a dynamic and thoughtful rhythm (even if he is prone a little too much to the “soft-slow/fast” approach). His Macbeth is a weak, indecisive man, happy only when he is in action. Clearly ambitious from the start, he binds himself in knots thinking but, once a decision has been made, has no hesitation. Violence is an instinctive tool – he kills several people with no hesitation and a lightening aggression – but he’s lost without direction. He clings to the crown as if it will somehow give the things he has done meaning.

Washington’s performance shifts gears once Macbeth has decided to fully commit himself to those scorpions that fill his mind, becoming an unbalanced mixture of fatalistic and recklessly impulsive. No wonder he has less need for his wife. Frances McDormand is perhaps even better as a Lady Macbeth who sees the crown as her last chance for legacy in a world that has left her behind. McDormand really understands the way to mine nuance from the language. Frequently inpatient with her husband, she is decisive where he is not, but squeamish around violence in a way he isn’t. Both Washington and McDormand manage to suggest a great deal of unfulfilled sadness in the Macbeths, two people in the twilight of their years who pounce on a chance for a last hurrah but find themselves psychologically unsuited for the consequences.

The two leads are at the head of a uniformly strong cast. Hunter and Hassell are both superb. Bertie Carvel is a brooding but honest Banquo. Corey Hawkins a forceful but thoughtful Macduff, played with guilt and wise from the start on Macbeth’s villainy. Moses Ingram brings a lot of warmth to a striking scene as Lady MacDuff. Ralph Ineson’s delivery of the Captain’s speech is spot on. Harry Melling is an immature, stubborn Malcolm.

But the real star here might just be Coen’s direction. The brooding, overbearing beauty of the film is all part of its atmosphere of creeping intimidation and danger. There are some truly striking, haunting images: the flame lit murder of Banquo, a deranged Macbeth fighting a spectral hallucination of Banquo, water pouring down into the flagstones after Macbeth’s final visions of the future, the smoke and mist filled murder of Macduff’s children (a shot of Wellesian brilliance), Lady Macbeth standing before a sheer drop, the imaginative arrival of Birnam wood, Macduff and Macbeth’s final duel in a narrow battlements. This is a punchy, brilliant, beautiful, intelligent and unique reimagining of the play that mixes Shakespeare, visual and has something clear and unique to say about staging the play. Comfortably one of the greatest Shakespeare films ever made.

Short Cuts (1993)

Anne Archer and Jack Lemmon are just two of many intersecting lives in Altman’s Short Cuts

Director: Robert Altman

Cast: Andie MacDowell (Ann Finnigan), Bruce Davison (Howard Finnigan), Julianne Moore (Marian Wyman), Matthew Modine (Dr Ralph Wyman), Anne Archer (Claire Kane), Fred Ward (Stuart Kane), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Lois Kaiser), Chris Penn (Jerry Kaiser), Lili Taylor (Honey Bush), Robert Downey Jnr (Bill Bush), Madeleine Stowe (Sherri Shepard), Tim Robbins (Gene Shepard), Lily Tomlin (Doreen Piggot), Tom Waits (Earl Piggot), Frances McDormand (Betty Weathers), Peter Gallagher (Stormy Weathers), Annie Ross (Tess Trainer), Lori Singer (Zoe Trainer), Jack Lemmon (Paul Finnigan), Lyle Lovett (Andy Bitkower), Buck Henry (Gordon Johnson), Huey Lewis (Vern Miller)

Helicopters fly over Los Angeles, spraying against medflies. Beneath them, people’s lives entwine over the course of a couple of days. It could only be an Altman film. The man who turned the whole of Nashville into a set for, repeats the trick here with a brilliantly handled adaptation of a series of Raymond Carver short stories into one single inter-linked narrative, that explores a full gamut of emotions in that strange race we call humanity.

The son of TV commentator Howard (Bruce Davison) and his wife Anne (Andie MacDowell) is hospitalised after he is accidentally clipped by the car of waitress Doreen (Lily Tomlin). He’s treated by Dr Ralph Wyman (Matthew Modine), currently feuding with artist wife Marian (Julianne Moore). Marian befriends clown Claire (Anne Archer), who is horrified when her husband Stuart (Fred Ward) and his friends decide not to let finding a dead body spoil their fishing trip. Marian’s sister Sherri (Madeline Stowe) is becoming increasingly exasperated with philandering cop husband Gene (Tim Robbins), who is having an affair with Betty (Frances McDormand) estranged wife of Stormy Weathers (Peter Gallagher) who flew one of those helicopters spraying medflies. That’s not even mentioning a furious baker (Lyle Lovett), a sexually frustrated pool cleaner (Chris Penn) and his phone-sex worker wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) or Howard’s unreliable father Paul (Jack Lemmon).

There aren’t many directors in Hollywood who could throw this many plates onto sticks and keep them spinning. Certainly very few who could make it look as easy as Altman does. With no less than twenty leading characters spread out across at least nine storylines, many of which intersect but without those taking part of them being aware of it, this is such a carefully woven tapestry even a single loose thread could have led to the entire image unravelling into a sorry collection of fabric. The fact it doesn’t, and the film moves so confidently and vibrantly from place-to-place, shifting from perspective to perspective without ever once confusing or alienating the audience, demonstrates this is the work of a master at the top of his game.

Altman’s verité style is at its best here. There is no need for flash or intrusive cinematic tricks, when the entire film is a brilliant expression of the potential of cinematic narrative. Altman’s camera, with its observational stillness, is perfectly matched with masterful editing (the film is superbly assembled by Geraldine Peroni) that not only makes this a coherent whole, but also finds every trace of reaction and nuance from the characters. Time and time again the camera (and the editing) searches out and finds that little moment of reaction that adds a whole world of depth to the story.

Because, like some of Altman’s best films, this is all about a cascade of little moments that combine into one beautifully enlightening whole. Each story demonstrates a different facet of the human experience, but what they all have in common is the unpredictability of how events many turn out and how people may react to them. There is a wonderful unknowability about people which the film captures. Just when we think we have a person sussed, they will do or say something we don’t expect. A philanderer’s wife will be amused by his cheating than horrified. An abusive baker will have depths of kindness. Feuding couples will find they have more in common than not.

There’s also darkness and sadness. The film is largely anchored by the increasingly heart-string tugging collapse of Howard and Ann’s son – and the pain that can lie in parent-child relationships is also seen in the dysfunctional relationship between jazz singer Tess (Annie Ross) and her talented but depressed celloist daughter Zoe (Lori Singer). As Ann, Andie MacDowell gives one of her finest performances as a powerless mother desperate to do the right thing, her fear and vulnerability as touching as her pain is devastating. Somehow, it’s all the more affecting by knowing how distraught Lily Tomlin’s Doreen would be if she knew the terrible impact of her very minor accident was.

That’s another beauty of this tapestry. As characters ‘guest’ in each other’s stories, we don’t see them in black-and-white but as ordinary people doing their best. Tim Robbins’ cop would probably seem a selfish rogue agent in the eyes of several characters, but as we see more of his home life (dysfunctional but strangely loving), it’s hard not to warm to him. We understand why Ralph (Matthew Modine) is a bit distant with the Finnegans, because he’s distracted by concerns that his wife is having an affair. We can’t be angry at Doreen, because we know she’s such a decent person.

The film doesn’t shy away from the darkness of people, not less the slow bubble of sad-eyed depression in the eyes of Chris Penn, jealous of the people his wife (a very good Jennifer Jason Leigh) talks dirty to down a phoneline – a bubble that will burst before the film’s end. Peter Gallagher’s cocksure and charming pilot has the potential in him to do something quite unpleasant to his wife. Even Tim Robbins’ cop seems only a few degrees from potentially taking the law into his own hands.

Short Cuts is wonderfully constructed – and never feels overbearing or overlong despite its great length – but it’s not perfect. It’s very hard not to notice today that it’s view of the great melting pot of Los Angeles is overwhelmingly white. Nearly every single woman takes her clothes off at some point (Julianne Moore famously does an entire domestic argument nude from the waist down, which is making a point about the impact of long-term marriage but still Modine is fully clothed). Altman at times lets his cynicism (and even slight condescension) for some characters show a little too clearly.

But, despite those flaws, Short Cuts is an almost perfect example of smorgasbord story-telling in cinema. And no one else could surely have done it with such ease and wit as Altman did.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Frances McDormand is looking for justice in Martin McDonagh’s razor sharp Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Director: Martin McDonagh

Cast: Frances McDormand (Mildred Hayes), Woody Harrelson (Sheriff Bill Willoughby), Sam Rockwell (Officer Jason Dixon), John Hawkes (Charlie Hayes), Peter Dinklage (James), Abbie Cornish (Anne Willoughby), Lucas Hedges (Robbie Hayes), Željko Ivanek (Sergeant Cedric Connolly), Caleb Landy Jones (Red Welby), Clarke Peters (Abercrombie), Samara Weaving (Penelope), Kerry Condon (Pamela), Darrell Britt-Gibson (Jerome), Amanda Warren (Denise), Kathryn Newton (Angela Hayes)

How do we deal with grief? What might it drive us to do? How does it make us behave – and what sort of person can it make us become? Martin McDonagh’s superbly scripted and directed, brilliantly acted film explores these themes in intriguing and compelling depth, consistently surprising the audience, not only with unexpected plot developments, but also wonderfully complex characters, whose personalities and decisions feel as distanced from convention as you can get.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is a grieving mother, who feels let-down by the police and justice system as they have failed to locate and arrest the rapist who murdered her daughter. She hires three large billboards on a quiet road out of her town in Ebbing, and places on each of them a stark message: “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests?” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”. The billboards lead to Sherriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) doing what he can to re-open the case – a case with no real evidence or leads. But the local community – many of whom adore Willoughby – are increasingly angered by the billboards, not least Willoughby’s semi-protégé, controversial red-neckish officer Joe Dixon (Sam Rockwell). The billboards lead to increasingly violent disagreement in the small community – and surprising allegiances developing.

McDonagh’s black comedy-drama balances immense sadness and searing rage with jet-black humour. McDonagh’s distinctive (and often foul-mouthed) style runs through the entire film. It’s a film that not only defies real categorisation, it also defies expectations. You would expect this film to be a commentary on a heart-rending grieving mother struggling against an indifferent, incompetent, racist (or all three) legal system. Perhaps even a film that will build towards a sort of “whodunit” murder mystery. All these expectations are constantly turned upon their head. Any obvious, traditional narrative development – and lord the film plays with this throughout its runtime – is diverted. You never know where the film is going – and you would certainly never have guessed its conclusion from the opening. 

Our expectations are immediately inverted when Woody Harrelson’s Sheriff meets with Frances McDormand’s mother in the opening moments. We expect him to be indifferent, annoyed or bitter – instead he’s liberal, concerned, sympathetic and hurt, while understanding why Mildred has done what she has done. Mildred, who we expect to be moved by, whose pain we expect to empathise with – instead she’s burning with fury and resentment, is amazingly confrontational and unyielding, and her ideas for investigating the crime border on the ruthlessly right-wing. Far from the predictable drama you might expect, you are thrown into something unusual – and real.

The storyline continues throughout in this vein – McDonagh never takes the expected route, but constantly pushes towards something unexpected. His trademark spikey dialogue throws you off balance – this is surely one of the few films where you’ll see a son affectionately call his mother “an old c**t”, or a happily married, middle-class couple address each other with a stunning, loving crudity. Pay-offs to plot developments are confidently unorthodox, and devoid of the expected sentimentality. The murder mystery element of the story is played with in a unique way: even the crime itself remains unexplored and unexplained, with only a few grim photos and a few hints dropped in dialogue as to what happened.

Instead, the film focuses on how grief and upheaval affects a community. All of the characters deal with a profound personal loss over the course of the story, and the impact of this on them leads not just to anger and rage, but also in some a profound reassessment of their life and choices. It’s a film that looks at the struggle we have to control the narratives of our own lives, to not be a victim but instead to give the things that have happened to us meaning and importance. Each character wants to find a way to make the things that have happen to them have meaning, and to find a sense of closure. It asks what can and can’t we forgive, and how far do we need to take actions to find a sense of closure. The film’s open-ended conclusion both points towards suggested answers to these questions, while at the same time offering few.

Frances McDormand gives a compelling performance in the lead role, as a domineering, strong-willed woman who resolutely refuses to be a victim, but wants revenge. Burning with a simmering rage at the world, and quick to respond with aggression and even violence, McDormand never allows the character to become fully sympathetic, but constantly challenges us. It’s the sharpest-edged grieving mother you’ll see on film, as full of prejudice and judgemental behaviour as she is pain and guilt. She attacks each scene like a bull in a china shop, and Mildred Hayes is a smart, ruthless woman who takes no prisoners.

The part was written especially for McDormand, as was that of Joe Dixon for Sam Rockwell. Rockwell, one of those eminently reliable supporting actors, gives an extraordinary powder-keg performance as an on-the-surface dumb, racist bully with poor impulse control, who is barely able to hide a vulnerable mummy’s-boy complex and a strangely touching sense of loyalty. Rockwell is dynamite in each scene, but constantly gives us interesting and varied line-readings, changing our perceptions of his character with each scene. 

To briefly address a controversy that has arisen about the film.  McDonagh has explored extremes like this in the past – his work in the past has humanised murderers, child-killers, terrorists and executioners, while not excusing their actions. The film has courted controversy by refusing to condemn Dixon’s racism, or for not ‘punishing’ the character enough, but it instead asks us to understand why Dixon has done or said the things he says – and to empathise with the pain, despair and anger in his own life. Is Dixon a racist? He’s a product of his time and place, I’d say he’s really just very angry, without understanding why, and without having the emotional intelligence to deal with it. He might have done unpleasant things – in the film doesn’t dodge this – but it asks us to question why he might have done this, rather than paint him as a demon.

Equally brilliant (perhaps one of his greatest performances) is Woody Harrelson as the surprisingly liberal, good-natured, patient and humane Sherriff Willoughby. Surely no one could expect the authority figure in a film of this nature to be the most sympathetic and likeable character in the film, the one with perhaps the most moving personal story. Harrelson is simply superb in the part, and his gentle, lingering regret hangs over the film.

But the whole cast is marvellous. Hawkes is a deeply troubled and pained man hiding it under anger and mid-life crisis. Dinklage is a sad eyed, lonely man. Cornish sports a slightly unusual accent but is warmly loving and very normal as Willoughby’s wife. Hedges is impressive as Mildred’s son, whose life is made increasingly difficult by his mother’s unwillingness to compromise. Landy Jones is excellent as the empathetic billboard manager, too good for this town. Peters brings a reassuring air of authority and dignity to the film. With the dialogue a gift for actors, there isn’t a weak performance in the film.

McDonagh’s fine, simple direction adds a Western-style sweep to the action and allows the story to speak for itself, working with the actors to bring out some brilliant, unique characterisations. It’s an intelligent and thought-provoking film, that constantly pushes you in unexpected directions and asks intriguing and challenging questions about profound issues, especially grief. Despite this, it’s a laugh-out-loud black comedy, that will move you and which has the courage to leave many of its plot issues open-ended and true-to-life. It asks questions, but it also acknowledges that life doesn’t give us answers. It also reminds us that we can never judge people from our initial impressions or expectations.

Hail Caesar! (2016)

George Clooney is a kidnapped actor in the Coen brothers 1950’s Hollywood spoof

Director: Joel and Ethan Coen

Cast: Josh Brolin (Eddie Mannix), George Clooney (Baird Whitlock), Alden Ehrenreich (Hobie Doyle), Ralph Fiennes (Laurence Laurentz), Scarlett Johansson (DeeAnna Moran), Frances McDormand (CC Calhoun), Tilda Swinton (Thora Thacker/Thessaly Thacker), Channing Tatum (Burt Gurney), Alison Pill (Connie Mannix), Jonah Hill (Joseph Silverman), Emily Beecham (Diedre), Clancy Brown (Co-star Hail Caesar!), Michael Gambon (Narrator)

The Coen brothers’ CV is a bit of a strange thing. It’s one part thriller, one part engagingly brilliant comedy – and then there are a collection of screwball-style entertainments, off-the-wall lightweight comedies (usually about dummies or sharp-talking professionals), as if every so often they needed a palate cleanser. Hail Caesar! falls very much into that final camp. 

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a studio manager and fixer in 1950s Hollywood, whose job is to keep the stars in line and the films running smoothly. The latest fly-in-his-ointment is the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the studio’s prestigious sword-and-sandals-and-Christianity epic Hail Caesar!. Mannix has to settle the ransom demand, while struggling to keep the news quiet – and manage the production of several other problems including a secretly pregnant Hollywood sweetheart (Scarlett Johansson) and a cowboy-turned-actor (Alden Ehrenreich) struggling with his latest movie requiring him to speak and act rather than just sing and ride a horse.

Hail Caesar! is a mixed bag. There are some wonderful comic sketches in here, the sort of brilliant highlights you could quite happily watch again and again. The problem is these sketches are part of a narrative framework that never really catches fire, that can’t seem to decide how much it is a surrealist comedy and how much it is a genuine Hollywood “behind-the-scenes” slice of life. So I found I delighted in the sketches, and the hilarious reconstructions of some of the studio fodder of the 1950s – while drifting through the general plot of the movie. The laughs are very tightly focused on the stand-alone sketches, and rarely develop from the plot of the movie itself.

Those sketches, though, are brilliant – and the Coens have secured what are effectively a series of stand-out cameos to deliver them. The highlight is certainly a hilarious sequence featuring Ralph Fiennes as a superior English director and Alden Ehrenreich as a cowboy-turned-actor crammed into a period drama in order to “change his image”. It’s a brilliant idea, that revolves around Fiennes’ barely concealed frustration Ehrenreich’s awkwardness in front of the camera, eagerness to please and most of all his accent which so badly affects his elocution that he simply cannot pronounce the line “Would that it were so simple”. The sequence is brilliantly funny – take a look at it down here. In fact it’s so good, it might be too good. Nothing else in the film really touches it.

There are some other good sketches in here as well. Most of them revolve around the loving recreation of Hollywood movies. The movie-within-the-movie Hail Caesar! is a perfect recreation of the Quo Vadis style of movies: large sets, hilariously over-blown dialogue, heavy-handed Christian messages (“Squint at the grandeur!” Clooney’s character is directed in one reaction shot to The Christ – as the filmmakers persist in calling him) and gaudy colour and sets. Clooney himself does a pitch perfect parody of the style and delivery of Robert Taylor.

We also get some spot-on parodies of Hollywood musical styles of the time. Scarlett Johansson plays a Esther Williams-style actress who stars in a series of swimming pool musicals (a bizarre fad of the time). Fiennes is directing a creakingly glacial Broadway-adaptation. Channing Tatum plays an actor in a Minnelli style musical. The tap-dancing sequence we see being filmed is, by the way, another brilliant sketch – a toe-tapping parody song, which also showcases Tatum’s grace and style as a dancer. It’s such a good parody that it actually sort of crosses over into being a genuinely enjoyable slice of song and dance.

I also struggled, as I tend to sometimes, with the artificiality of the Coens’ comedy – there is always an air of them (and their actors) wanting the audience to know that they are far smarter than the dummies in the film. I get this feeling a lot from Clooney in particular – while his film-within-a-film sequences are brilliant, it feels like he never feels much affection for the character outside these sequences. He wants us to know that Clooney is not as dumb or vain as Whitlock is. It’s this lack of empathy that doesn’t quite make the performance work. Empathy is why Eldenreich is the stand-out performer of the film. He plays Hobie Doyle with a real affection and warmth – he makes the character feel like a sweet and genuine person. While Hobie is always a comic spoof, he also feels like he could be a real person – making him so much easier to relate to for the audience.

Hail Caesar! is a film that works in fits and starts, not all the way through. Josh Brolin is fine as Mannix, and his fast-talking, plate juggling, problem solving throws up some funny lines – but his story never really engages the audience as much as it should, and the Catholic guilt Mannix balances in his life never really becomes clear. The Coens are reaching for some point about art and faith – of how film makers may tell themselves they are making something for art, when they actually work for faceless businessmen interested only in making money – but it never really brings this art vs. money argument into place. Does a picture have worth if we talk about worth enough? It’s a question we may as well ask about Hail Caesar itself.

Because the parodies and sketches of old Hollywood movies are so brilliantly done, whenever we drift away from them to the actual plot you find yourself losing interest. It’s a film that actually works better as a few sketches extracted from YouTube – I could happily watch Fiennes and Eldenreich’s scene, or Tatum’s dance sequence, or Clooney’s Taylor spoof in isolation – I don’t really feel the need to watch the entire movie again.

Fargo (1996)

Frances McDormand investigates one of many pointless slaughters, in the Coen’s bleak but fantastic Fargo

Director: Joel and Ethan Coen

Cast: Frances McDormand (Marge Gunderson), William H. Macy (Jerry Lundegaard), Steve Buscemi (Carl Showalter), Peter Stormare (Gaear Grimsrud), Harve Presnell (Wade Gustafson), John Carroll Lynch (Norm Gunderson), Steve Reevis (Shep Proudfoot), Kristin Rudrüd (Jean Lundegaard)

Sometimes you see a film and, for whatever reason, you expected something totally different. It can throw you when something is so different from your expectations. With Fargo I had been led to expect a comedy. A comedy with dark undertones, but a comedy never the less. Fargo is in fact such a blackly, violently, grim piece of work – with lashings of dark comedy – that I was completely turned off by it. Watching it again, understanding the quirky blackness and nihilistic optimism (yes that’s right!) it contains, I appreciated it more and more as the masterpiece it is.

In Minneapolis, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is a down-on-his luck car dealer, heavily in debt, who arranges for two small-time criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Storemare) from Fargo, North Dakota, to kidnap his wife, splitting the $80,000 ransom (while telling his wealthy father-in-law the ransom is actually $1 million). However, the kidnapping quickly gets bogged down in an escalating cycle of murder and violence, and events quickly spin out-of-control. All this is investigated by heavily-pregnant and relentlessly positive police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand).

Only the Coens could have made film that is so nihilistic, in which life is so cheap and death so meaningless, but yet at the same time strangely hopeful and life-affirming. Because even after all the horror and casual murder that fills the film, its heart remains the warmth of Marge Gunderson. The film continually returns to the simple affection of her relationship with her husband (a hugely sweet John Carroll Lynch). Even her pregnancy (and their obvious, unshowy delight in it) suggests a hopeful new world, moving away from the horrors of this one. It’s a genuine, emotional heart at the centre of the story, which grounds all the violence and mayhem.

And there is a lot of violence. The film is punctured at several points by brutal and unexpected killings. The body count is extraordinarily high (seven people die during the film, which considering the cast is so small and the running time so tight is pretty darn high). The camera doesn’t shy away from the horrific after-effects of killing – the suddenness, and the cold grimness of the bodies left behind. The killing is often random and pointless, with several bystanders suffering: at one point the camera pans past a parking attendant, in the wrong place at the wrong time, slumped dead on the floor of his booth. And all of this over some money. Well, that and the fact that Peter Storemare’s thug is a psychopath.

All this disaster of course spins out from the feckless vacancy of William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundergaard, a sad-sack loser and overtly “nice guy” who you feel has been an unimpressive, quietly resentful failure his entire life. Macy has never been better, not only making Jerry empty and desperate but also quietly bitter and frustrated. He’s never actually that sympathetic – there is an un-empathetic shallowness in him. David Thomson described him as “a scoundrel, and in the end amiability is as nothing.” Even when he’s being humiliated, you can’t really warm to him. There are several brilliant sequences where Lundergaard’s anger and resentfulness bubble under his “Minnesota-nice” attitudes – be that facing his over-bearing father across the dining room table, or furiously scraping at his car in the ice.

That “Minnesota-nice” accent and rhythm of speaking, its impeccable good manners, are the source of a lot of the films fun and warmth. Every character around the edges of the drama is sweetly optimistic, scrupulously polite and positive. It’s part of the Coens’ genius to set such a cold and violent drama within the confines of a world which is upbeat and positive. There is a brilliant contrasting comedy to the harshness of the world against the gentle happiness of Minnesota. It’s endlessly endearing and sweet.

The centre of this is Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson, perhaps one of the quickest and sharpest investigators you’ll see in drama, able to compartmentalise the brutality of crime from the warmth of her home life. McDormand is simply excellent, the beating heart of the movie, despite the fact she doesn’t even appear until it is almost a third of the way in. Her gentle but astute investigation of the crime is marvellously Miss-Marple-like in its sharpness. But she extends the same shrewd and generous understanding of human nature to her personal life: there is a marvellous sequence where, having agreed to meet an old friend from college, she gently lets him down after recognising the lonely divorcee wants something very different from the meeting. That’s not surprising, considering the gentle supportiveness and love in her relationship with her husband gives the film a constant respite of humanity.

Marge may see the world of violence, she may even be able to live in it sometimes, but she doesn’t really understand it. And that’s not surprising because the Coens’ plot here revolves sort of around money, but it’s mostly around mistakes, fuck-ups and confusion. It just so happens that a number of the people involved are dangerous, proud, devoid of conscience or all three. It’s a disaster of epic proportions. But it spins out of no planning, just events going out of control. Jerry’s father in law (played excellently by Harve Presnell, a truly imposing slab of masculinity and the prototype bully) is of course far too controlling and arrogant to not take matters into his own hand by playing hardball with killers.

And those killers are both excellent. It’s a perfect role for Buscemi – scuzzy, fast talking, weaselly – with a look of panic behind the eyes. He’s a small-time hood, out of his depth, who makes some terrible mistakes and resorts to killing and violence. He’s a perfect match with Peter Storemare’s softly spoken, chillingly blank killer who goes about “cleaning up” any mess with a ruthless simplicity.

But that’s the thing about this film. It might be full of ruthless people and killers, but it ends with Marge and her husband, together in bed, spending time together. They have a future and it’s one of simple family values and hope. There may be mindless, terrible killing out in the world – senseless violence that goes nowhere and means nothing – but there is still the warmth of family relationships, the charm of simple home values. It’s a nihilistic film where life is cheap – but it leaves you with a warm and happy feeling.

It’s also of course marvellously made – if you had any doubt about the Coens’ mastery of cinema, watch this – it’s superbly edited and brilliantly paced. It’s a perfect length, short, sharp and achingly profound. It’s also marvellously shot by Roger Deakins. I hated Fargo when I first saw it. But re-watching it twice since then, it’s a marvel. A truly unique and deeply wonderful film.

Primal Fear (1996)

Richard Gere prepares an impossible defence for unbalanced Edward Norton. Twist ahoy!

Director: Gregory Hoblit

Cast: Richard Gere (Martin Vail), Laura Linney (Janet Venable), John Mahoney (John Shaughnessy), Alfre Woodard (Judge Shoat), Frances McDormand (Dr Molly Arrington), Edward Norton (Aaron Stampler), Terry O’Quinn (Bud Yancy), Andre Braugher (Tommy Goodman)

Courtroom dramas are the bread and butter of film drama. You get to deal with good vs evil, right vs wrong – and you even have two advocates on each side there duelling it out on camera for you. Primal Fear came at a time when John Grisham and his like were ruling the bestseller charts, and it’s a fine demonstration of that very late 80s to mid 90s genre: the all-star court case film.

After the murder of a beloved archbishop in Chicago, bloodied altar-boy Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) is found near the scene. There seems no doubt that he’s guilty. Top city lawyer Martin Vail (Richard Gere) takes his case for the publicity of a big trial, but finds himself believing the boy to be innocent. As the trial begins though, Vail’s psychiatric investigation reveals Stampler has a split personality – his gentle main persona and a violent defensive personality, “Roy”, who admits to the crime.

This is an advanced, well-written trial thriller which, through a combination of some neat lines and some very good performers, manages to bring a lot of life and originality to what could have been a collection of stock characters. Instead, each character in the film feels real and their actions seem part of a coherent personality. The mechanics of the plot also move very smoothly, with a well-handled twist. And as a bonus it has something to say about human nature, about our need to believe in something and how easy it is to tell lies about ourselves and believe them from others.

The film is shot with a good eye for grimy real-life locations and muddy shade-of-grey morality. Hoblit’s direction is crisp and straightforward and he avoids getting any pyrotechnics in the way of the actors – here the performances are the special effects. It’s also a brilliant twist movie that doesn’t telegraph the fact it contains a twist until it suddenly pulls the rug out from under your feet. Hoblit doesn’t give us any advantages over the characters and has the restraint not to show his hand too early – instead he sucker punches us with a sudden downer ending. It’s a masterpiece of genre craft film-making.

Richard Gere at first glance is playing well within his range – a smirking hotshot focused on the win, willing to defend anyone and anything. However, what Gere does really well here is play his persona as an actual persona of the character. The “real” Martin Vail, it becomes clear, is actually almost naïve in his underlying faith in the justice system. He has a touching faith in people and the twist of the film works because we believe how much Vail unwittingly allows himself too be manipulated and conned. He’s the sort of true believer who can playfully mock his faith because his belief in it is absolute. It’s even more crushing, then, when that faith is so cruelly used and abused. The final shot of him alone on the street all but screams “My God, what have I done?”.

But though this film has some of Gere’s best work, this is Ed Norton’s movie. Incredibly, this was Norton’s first ever film, and he seizes the film absolutely by the scruff of the neck. Re-watching the film now, it’s less of a surprise when Aaron’s “Roy” personality bursts out – Norton is so well known now you are almost waiting for him to really let rip – but he nails the contrasts between the stammering, gentle Aaron and the ferocious Roy. You always know which one he is at any time – and even better than that, Norton drops subtle hints throughout to set up the film’s twist (which I won’t give away). His performance is largely a triumph of masterful control of acting tricks and a brilliant demonstration of range, as well as a swaggering display of confidence, rather than a subtle piece of character work, but it’s still an absolute knock out for all that – and totally believable.

Strong performances also come from Laura Linney, making an awful lot of the role of Gere’s courtroom nemesis and part-time lover. Andre Braugher is particularly good as an investigating officer. Alfre Woodward is stern and authoritative but fair minded and just as the judge. Frances McDormand makes what could have been a wet liberal doctor feel like a genuinely caring and dedicated intelligent professional. There isn’t a weak link in the cast, and every character beat feels well observed and natural. How many genre films have failed to manage that?

It all works extremely well and offers all the courtroom fireworks you could want with maximum efficiency. All the actors are working at the top of their game, and the direction keeps the action taut and intriguing. Here’s the thing: the plot makes little sense if you think about it, and Norton’s plan depends on so many variables he could never have known that it would success. But the film is made with such confidence and assurance that it never really matters. The twist still has a lot of impact today – and the film bravely offers no happy endings, only hammers home the system’s corruptness. A very good example (perhaps one of the best) of the courtroom genre.