In stylish slasher flicks like Seven, all the interiors are dark and dank. Director Krzysztof Kieslowski does such moody murderfests one better with A Short Film About Killing, an expanded version of one of the episodes of his ambitious The Decalogue, which dramatized each of the 10 Commandments. Taking full advantage of Warsaw’s industrial miasma, he depicts a world where even the outdoors seems illuminated by a 10-watt bulb—and a greenish one at that.
Harshly poetic and starkly unsentimental, Killing opens with the silhouette of a hanged cat, which presages the punishment for murder in Poland in 1987. (That’s when the movie, a longtime film-festival attraction now getting belated commercial distribution, was made.) It’s a clear-eyed contemplation of human violence, uncut by a complicated message or the mysticism that later crept into the director’s work.
As in his more beautifully rendered efforts, such as Blue and Red, Kieslowski (and co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz) introduces a few unrelated characters who are brought together by brute fate. Amid the panorama of petty hostility that opens it, the film comes to focus on a loutish taxi driver (Jan Tesarz) who delights in not serving the public; Yatzek (Miroslaw Baka), an aimless young man with no apparent purpose for being in the city other than the occasional unprovoked assault on pigeons and people; and a young lawyer (Krzysztof Globisz) who’s just passed the bar exam. The first two are anything but cheery, and the third will soon be plunged into their darkness.
Without evident motivation, Yatzek engages the cabbie for a ride to the edge of the city. There he strangles him, an act depicted unflinchingly as messy and protracted, and finishes him off by smashing his head with a stone. The lawyer is assigned to defend Yatzek, but we aren’t shown his case (even though a sympathetic but unswayed judge calls the lawyer’s summation “the best discourse against capital punishment I have ever heard”). Instead, Kieslowski skips from one killing to another, from the cabbie’s murder to Yatzek’s execution. He too will be strangled and hanged, but with an officially sanctioned noose.
“Since Cain, punishment has not improved the world,” the fledgling lawyer tells his examiners, who smile indulgently. Since Cain, however, it has continued, and Killing portrays Yatzek’s execution with almost clinical precision and detail. Kieslowski will not allow it to be any less cruel than the first slaying. Randomness and inexorability usually combine in his work, but seldom as chillingly as this.
Virtually no fun at all, Killing can hardly be recommended to those seeking either diversion or uplift. The film’s stark integrity is its own reward, however, and its look is as austerely beautiful as its scenario is sobering. Sometimes obscuring parts of the frame, Kieslowski and cinematographer Slawomir Idziak suggest that the viewer is seeing the proceedings through a smudged glass (or windshield, a green-tinted example of which expands the film’s predominantly green-and-yellow palette). It’s as if, even as he stares murder right in the face, the director can’t resist smearing at least the edges of these almost-too-intense images.
America is a festering dump, TV makes you stupid, and Nicole Kidman is a winning killer. These are the messages of To Die For, a sprightly but thematically stale parable of amok ambition and female sexual predation. It’s director Gus Van Sant’s most coherent effort since Drugstore Cowboy, but it explains why he’s always been more comfortable making films about fringe characters: because his analysis of mainstream culture is every bit as banal as the culture itself.
To be fair, Die‘s funny but somewhat quaint script is by ’60s liberal Buck Henry, whose distaste for the American mob hasn’t changed appreciably since he wrote The Graduate. Henry turns up occasionally in a bit role as a censorious high-school teacher, but his contempt for the film’s characters is obvious in every frame.
Die was adapted from Joyce Maynard’s fictionalization of the case of a New Hampshire schoolteacher who seduced a student into killing her husband. To make this small-town scandal more culturally resonant, Henry has transformed protagonist Suzanne Stone (Kidman) into a cable-channel weathercaster and wanna-be Barbara Walters. While honeymooning with her sweet, dull husband Larry (Matt Dillon), a bartender in line to inherit his father’s restaurant, Suzanne visits a broadcasting convention, where a cynical keynote speaker tells her, “You’ve got to really want it.” By way of illustration, he whispers to her the name of a prominent TV-news star who sucked and fucked her way to the top.
Once she gets this message, Suzanne is entirely prepared to emulate the unnamed celebrity’s course. That proves unnecessary to get her first job at a TV station, where her bemused coworkers dub her “Gangbusters.” Instead, she turns the lesson to the problem of Larry, who is more interested in having babies and remaking the family restaurant than in Suzanne’s grand ambitions. While taping interviews for a youth-of-today documentary, she befriends three downscale kids. (That these New England losers are actually rednecks is established by the use of songs like “Sweet Home Alabama.”) One of them, James (Joaquin Phoenix), she takes to bed, promising more hot sex in the future if he’ll only kill Larry.
All of this is more or less understood from the beginning of the film, which unfolds in a predictable mock-documentary form. We’re quickly introduced to Larry’s acerbic sister (Illeana Douglas), a professional ice skater who always loathed Suzanne, and treated to a montage of print and video accounts of the murder. The proceedings are regularly interrupted by segments of Suzanne explaining herself to a video camera, the plain white background and frame-filling close-ups demonstrating her detachment from real life.
Simply transforming the murderer into a weathercaster, however, doesn’t make Die a cogent analysis of life in Oprah-land. Despite its obvious hatred of American TV, the film is nothing more than a bad-natured sitcom. The perky Suzanne is just Mary Richards with a murderous streak—her boss is even named Mr. Grant—and Kidman is such a blithe, self-possessed little schemer that the film plays like Clueless Goes Homicidal.
Set in Little Hope, N.H. (although it was filmed in Canada), Die is well equipped with clever, if hollow, verbal and visual gags. (In one scene, a cop dusts a TV for prints as “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays and Old Glory fills the screen.) What it lacks is any empathy or understanding of its central character; Van Sant and Henry never even make it clear why Suzanne, even self-deluded as she is, feels the need to dispatch Larry. They assume the audience will accept that Suzanne’s ambitions are venal, and will join in the movie’s exultation at her nasty comeuppance. It must be true that anyone who wants to make it in the TV biz is a creep. After all, that’s what people who want to make it in the movie biz have been telling us for years.
Satyajit Ray was a Calcutta native, but he came to prominence with naturalistic studies of Indian rural life, shot on location. As the director’s career progressed, his films became talkier and more set-bound, reaching their nadir with 1989’s An Enemy of the People, an unconvincing adaptation of the Ibsen play made under severe health constraints. (Ray was recovering from a heart attack at the time.) His next and final film, 1991’s The Stranger, is largely similar in mode, but it’s much better—and it ends with a satisfying twist that takes Ray almost full circle.
Most of the film, now getting its D.C. commercial premiere at the Biograph, is set in the middle-class Calcutta household of businessman Sudhindra Bose (Deepankar De) and his wife Anila (Mamata Shankar), who are surprised to receive a letter indicating that Anila’s uncle Manmohan Mitra (Utpal Dutt) will arrive for a visit. No member of the family has seen Mitra in 35 years, and Anila barely remembers him. The more traditional of the couple, she is prepared to welcome him; her suspicious husband, however, suspects some sort of con.
Mitra, it turns out, is quite sensitive to their concerns, and he quickly ingratiates himself with the couple’s young son. He’s not above being a bit playful about whether or not he actually is Anila’s uncle, though. The couple’s skepticism is further stirred when it occurs to them that the real Mitra is due to receive a significant inheritance, and their visitor freely admits that he’s returned to Calcutta (after years spent mostly in aboriginal villages in India and the Americas) because he’s out of money. His principal interest, though, is discussing the merits of “civilization,” in which he apparently mirrors the viewpoint of the director himself.
The film’s philosophical set piece is a discussion between Mitra and a lawyer, Sen Gupta (Dhritiman Chatterjee), who Sudhindra invites over to casually interrogate the family’s house guest. Incensed by Mitra’s contempt for the Indian status quo, Gupta tears into the visitor. Mitra holds his own, however, defending “primitive” cultures over “civilized” man, whom he defines as a man with his finger on a nuclear bomb’s trigger. “It is my greatest regret that I’m not a savage,” declares the scholarly Mitra.
Sudhindra apologizes for the ferocity of the questioning, and Mitra doesn’t seem offended. The next morning, however, the family members wake to find that their guest is gone. They decide to find him, and—suddenly—the film is outside. The Boses follow Mitra to a tribal village, where the appeal of a simpler life is demonstrated. It’s a quiet epiphany, but after the drawing-room gentility of much of the film, the effect is powerful.
The Stranger‘s final moments also satisfyingly return Ray to his filmmaking beginnings: He ends what he probably knew would be his last film almost where he began, in a small Indian village. The movie’s philosophical dialogue doesn’t begin to settle the issue of civilization versus savagery, of course. Instead, it transcends it, with a moment whose modest sensuality offers a contrast not only to the film’s earlier scenes but also to all of Ray’s chattily uncinematic late films.