Movie Miscellany: 12 (Talk to Me, The Red & the White, The Fall of the Roman Empire)

'Talk to Me' (2022).
'Talk to Me' (2022).

Talk to Me (dirs. Danny and Michael Philippou, 2022)


Some day a study will be written of sibling-directors (their gifts and quirks): the Coens, cinematic trapeze-artists, poised always between violence and wit; the Dardennes, whose every venture seems, somehow, a soft riposte to prevailing social and dramatic prejudices; the Safdies, prowling jaggedly through the darker reaches of New York’s jungle, hunting for souls. Even if they never make another picture (which, judging by the strength of their debut, would be tragic indeed), Danny and Michael Philippou would have a rightful place in the pantheon for Talk to Me, their superb coming-of-age horror – funny, frightening and fresh from start to finish. Sophie Wilde delivers a head-spinning deep-dive of a performance as Mia, a grieving teenager who begins to experiment with a mysterious embalmed hand (of dubious origins, and rumoured to be cursed) in the company of school-friends after hours. A series of bizarre, and increasingly blood-curdling, happenings ensues. Brilliantly, although chock full of visceral jump-scares, and masterfully mingling tones of grief and dread, the film can also be read as an irreverent critique of suburbia and the nervous disorders it harbours. After Riley (Joe Bird) literally self-destructs during one of the séance sessions, Sue (Miranda Otto) concludes of her child’s behaviour, as if stating the obvious, “he had a breakdown.” Likewise, the portrait of variously traumatised and vulnerable adolescents hurling themselves into the heady thrills of supernatural possession, with dangerous side-effects, often feels like an ironic take on teenage drug use and addiction among the middle classes. Primarily, though, Talk to Me is a delicious feast for viewers ready to be haunted and disturbed. Watching it for the first time is like glancing in the mirror and finding a corpse inside the glass – as jolting and horrific as that. How glorious.



The Red and the White (dir. Miklós Jancsó, 1967)


Set in 1919 after the outbreak of the Russian revolution and civil war, The Red and the White follows the fortunes of a band of captured Hungarian soldiers who attempt to aid Bolshevik forces as they struggle to repel the White army from a contested region overlooking the Volga river. Jancsó’s subtle, focused direction lends the action a thrumming emotional force. Almost every character in the teeming cast is treated with a human accuracy bordering on tenderness – from the desperate, love-lorn nurse who faces court-martial by the Reds for disloyalty, to the cruel and hubristic White captain who attempts to rape a civilian by-stander, only to face execution himself for such conduct, considered unbecoming of his rank. In the scenes of chase and military battle, the camera often pans out quietly, so the drama shifts from one of inter-personal observation to something more resembling landscape-cinema, encompassing every manner of hope, havoc and desolation. Throughout, the fast-moving, deftly handled horse-riding sequences are a marvel to behold: equal in exhilaration to anything from the films of John Ford, but also more suspenseful, because resistant to the heroic populism that Ford invests in his stories as a matter of course. Jancsó’s unwavering recognition of the relentlessness of death in wartime, along with his steadfast refusal to glamourise the conduct of either of the opposing sides (despite receiving Soviet funding prior to filming), is part of what makes this tense battle-drama as involving as it is. That, and the disconcerting beauty of the terrain over which the contending political actors clash: even as the murdered bodies drop in the wide meadows or are carried away by the flowing river, we can hear the field-larks singing, see the wind a-sway in the grass. In a strange way, Jancsó seems to be showing us something of what life could be, beyond all our bedlam and brutality.



The Fall of the Roman Empire (dir. Anthony Mann, 1964)


As a child, I spent a great deal of time marching around with a red cowboy hat on my head, loudly petitioning my parents to video-record movies like Winchester ’73 (1950) and The Man from Laramie (1955) on my behalf. Recently, no longer decked out in my once-requisite costume, I picked up a copy of The Fall of the Roman Empire, and realised that I had seen this film, too, several times while growing up, but without associating Anthony Mann, the crafter of westerns, with the spectacle before me. Armed in my knowledge, I approached the scarcely remembered epic with new eyes. Famous in its day for its bombastic action sequences and ambitious scope, now the film seems most striking for its meditative intervals. In the opening segments, as Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) reflects on his own mortality, and attempts to shore up the future unity of his fractious empire, his heavy eyes and sad voice create a dream-like lull, anticipating the slow, elegiac ambience that seeps through the scenes of mourning that immediately follow his death. In an important detail, and in contrast to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), the emperor is surreptitiously poisoned by his own subjects, rather than by Commodus, his power-hungry son. This allows the latter a psychological subtlety that Joaquin Phoenix’s later melodramatic incarnation – all juvenile petulance and pseudo-psychoanalytic dysfunction – never attains. Commodus here, played with glassy-eyed charisma by Christopher Plummer, feels grief for his father, and affectionate respect for his rival, Livius (Stephen Boyd), even as his will-to-power and apparently prodigal nature drive him onwards. In other words, he is an intelligent villain, capable of emotional complexity, self-awareness, and even bravery on the battlefield, alongside megalomania and callousness. His contradictions make him far more intriguing, in fact, than his blandly virtuous antagonist. I shouldn’t have been surprised: if his troubled westerns are anything to go by, Anthony Mann was always more interested in tarnished, ambiguous characters than heroes; his dramas unfold in a fallen world. 

Ciarán O'Rourke // September 2023