goddess of too much

Amazonia: Wonder Woman via Ron Rege Jr and Maja D’Aoust

When the August Sight & Sound magazine arrives it will include me on Pirates Of The Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge, which has all the woes of the modern digital idyll and the trans-national franchise on the skids. “In the deep ironic oceans of the mainstream, the more that digital entertainments try to do all the reacting for you, the more conformist they all become.”

The Greek god of scheduling placed Pirates, in which a proto-feminist briefly cooks up her own agency before settling for all the norms, adjacent to Wonder Woman, a character outfitted at birth by her creator to give conformity a kick in the ἀσπίδες. More power to all moved by Wonder Woman, especially those moved to exercise that power when normally denied it, but beware the cultural-industrial complex bearing gifts. A shift in a genre film’s content is one thing; it will be changes to form that prove the ground is actually shifting. And Wonder Woman‘s form seems almost as conspicuously straitjacketing as before, especially during a creaking climax that gives up any intent at radicalism and just waits for the usual high-five from a weary spectator. If there really is an opening for diversity of intention and input in this neck of the woods, then there’s also a potential calling for critics up for grabs: the one in which we finally patrol the border between technique and essence in the art that emerges, and put the screws on it with something more effective than blank verse.

It’s more than 20 years since Scott Bukatman pointed out that female comics characters were becoming more free by the minute – free to be as musculinized and armoured as all the men. He thought that the muscles of Image Comics female heroes were part of the body-building culture lurking behind superheroes in general, but in modern films it’s always the myth of redemptive violence that’s exerting the magnetic pull. When Wonder Woman strides into the no man’s lands of World War One, she hasn’t had to bounce back from the kind of unmanning castration scenarios that a male’s journey would have involved by that point – no Mel Gibson martyr she – and Gal Gadot’s frown of determination is so sweetly guileless that it’s probably one reason she was cast. But how different exactly would the sound and vision at that point be if she were male, armed to the teeth and taking out the trash? The electric cello lick that Hans Zimmer and Tina Guo created for Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman makes my fillings hurt – at best a motif, at worst an example of film music no longer even attempting to do the things it used to do – but when applied to punch-ups in the middle of World War One, content has mugged form and tipped it into a dumpster.

It’s no accident that Connie Nielsen, even weighted down by wig and dead animal, and Robin Wright, trapezius muscles bare and tensing, are treated to some decent stabs at characterisation, while Elena Anaya’s scarred brittle evil genius gets nothing at all. Any hint of thematic interest in her destroyed femininity, in her encased body versus the Amazons letting it all hang out, would have gone a long way to bolster the film’s ambitions; but redemptive violence prefers its villainy to be rote, so Dr Poison’s is no more colourful than that of her male ally played by Danny Huston, tripping balls on mystic nitrous.

Above all, and just as in Pirates, some stubborn conservatism reveals itself in characters stuck with a crisis of identity rather than a crisis of principle. Wonder Woman loses the original version’s role as a proselytising ambassador for female authority, and instead gets lumbered with being the latest Chosen One off the production line – the dreariest destiny modern cinema to offer, although one that says a bunch about modern society.

Students of form vs. content had to make do with PowerPoint slides until last year, when Alex Proyas made Gods of Egypt. The critical recoil from Gods of Egypt settles any argument about the way that irony now weighs upon an IP-driven pop-culture like a lead apron. Deliberately engineer the irony away, and everyone loses their bearings. Go even further, go all the way into whimsy and pick Bryan Brown to play the god Osiris and have him practically say G’day, and everyone loses their minds. Élodie Yung sashays through Gods of Egypt with all the agency and self-determination and sexual advocacy that the Nile Delta can hold, as free as the air, and she does so speaking dialogue by the same writers who scripted Dracula Untold and The Last Witch Hunter, words made of meaningless rubble – and that right there is the difference between form and content. No cultural-industrial complex in the world is going to allow Gods of Egypt again for a while, or let Élodie Yung play Wonder Woman, although she was apparently considered. Some considerably different film that might have been. If Yung had been given a musical identity of modernist electrified shredding, it would only be because she charged onto the screen playing it herself before beaning someone with the cello.

(art by Ron Regé, of whose Wonder Woman more here.)

dead centres

For the June issue of Sight & Sound magazine I watched astronauts get eaten in Life, a film happily symptomatic of the age.

“There are no margins or centres now, just a digital bacchanal of in jokes, scuttlebutt and lore churning a tense and self-conscious pop culture.” – says me, pointing in the direction of both Erik Davis and Kim O’Connor and stealing their lunch money.

We nerd out on culture that we experience as data to play with.
The in jokes, scuttlebutt, mash ups, and lore obsession of geekery allow us to snuggle up to the uncanny possibilities of magic, superpowers, and cosmic evil without ever losing the cover story that makes these pleasures possible for modern folks: that our entertainments are “just fictions,” diversions with no ontological or real psychological upshot, just moves in a game.

Erik Davis in Techgnosis (2015 edition Afterword)

People never feel more self-satisfied than when they recognise what one thing takes from something else. Abhay Khosla described this phenomenon in an essay about Michael Fiffe’s COPRA:
“Categorise. Classify. Regiment. Bag. Bored. Bleh.”
I like the idea that there’s some critical space where you can attend to a work that is not just a take – that criticism is capable, perhaps, of transcending whatever it’s about.

Kim O’Connor‘s essay How We Take, in Zainab Akhtar’s (now Eisner-nominated) compilation zine Critical Chips (2016)

Categorise, classify, bored, bleh. What are the chances of a film criticism that can transcend whatever it’s about, if it remains content to be a traditional conservative academic humanities discipline, and while audio-visual culture mutates away from everything that made that approach viable? You could equally ask why film criticism ever wanted to be a traditional conservative humanities discipline in the first place, but then we’re back to David Bordwell again.

poets day

For Critic’s Notebook I watched Ben Wheatley’s new film Free Fire, and once again was left trying to work out whether the problem is him or me.

I reviewed Confusion and Carnage, Adam Nayman’s new book about Wheatley, in the May issue of Sight & Sound and looked for some answers in there too. But the book has a fan’s certainty and doesn’t set out to convince doubters. Back when criticism could still be called niche employment, David Bordwell called for less interpretation and more poetics in film criticism, on the grounds that “interpretation has become easy, but analysis is still hard.”

He had enough solid reasons to be going on with in 1989, although couldn’t foresee the one that’s become most pressing right now. When expertise is mistrusted and the voice of authority has become more of a death rattle, ceaseless interpretation of every raised eyebrow and rainbow is just a really bad way to change anyone’s mind about anything.

A rhetoric of musts and onlys, of always alreadys, of dangers and complicities portrays the writer as one guided by certainties.

– Dr Bordwell, fortune teller.

dunstabbin’

Certain Women: horse sense

My notebook says I was positive about Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, which proves that memory is a tricky thing. But Certain Women is the real deal, achieving what advocates of minimalism always say it can do and inviting you to meet it halfway as a genuine way of seeing. Short film festivals would be better off these days looking away from conventional narrative fictions, but Reichardt’s third story, in which Lily Gladstone forms an attachment to Kristen Stewart that seems born out of simple stoic yearning, would be a perfect 30-minute entry for anywhere so inclined. The confused affection of these two characters is never articulated but constantly visualised, eventually in the way Stewart reflexively hugs Gladstone slightly more tightly while riding on her horse – and immediately she’s gone, no longer able to shoulder whatever it was that just happened. Gladstone returns to her horses, as do we all. This has been a key few months for grappling with what realism looks like on screen, and Reichardt’s style always opens up another front on the issue by pruning away elements of urban life in a manner that would give Ken Loach a headache; but Loach always seems to be moving towards you from the screen, an over-emphasis that draws on his instincts as a placard-holder but which can ruin as much as it reveals. Reichardt generates pull rather than push – on the whole a more profitable transaction. Continue reading

marginals

invitation

The Invitation: raise the red lantern

The annual Sight & Sound Films of the Year poll is online and in the January 2017 print magazine. My votes were for:

Little Sister  (discussed in part here during the Edinburgh Film Festival)
The Invitation  (wiki)
Flag Without a Country  (reviewed at Critic’s Notebook)
Queen of Earth  (wiki)
The Neon Demon  (gallery)

Other votes for these films by poll participants:  0, 0, 0, 1, and 4 respectively.

In the comment box, some matters arising:

“Three of these used video-on-demand as their route to a UK audience, either with a momentary theatrical release or doing without that gesture. Should this alter how critics process them? Perhaps. The position and impact of art is criticism’s business, but the opaqueness of streaming revenues and viewing figures leaves the matter of these films’ success vague in economic and cultural terms alike. Faced with terra incognita, critics’ exploratory outlook matters. Saying that a film is in cinemas, when we really mean it’s in two cinemas for a single day, is either a safety-blanket privileging of the cinema experience or a flat parroting of the marketing message; but either way, pointing people towards places where the art isn’t looks a lot like voluntary redundancy. All grist for a rebalancing of our cultural journalism remit, perhaps via conceding that ceaseless personal curation isn’t the same thing.”

The position of art is indeed criticism’s business. Protecting the language of expertise falls to us too, in an age when the default response to any authoritative voice is disdain; so we had better recognise when we’re facing the world and when we’re facing the wall. A blind spot for coherent language when notable art falls on streaming platforms rings an alarm bell on all counts. Flag Without a Country didn’t even make it that far, yet every time the TV beams pictures from the Middle East into my living room, I find myself wondering whether Helly and Nariman are still in a position to draw breath. What exactly is notable art for, if not that?

As always, the idea that we’re curators – scholars, pathfinders – rather than cultural journalists flatters us to bits, but you end up having to justify why something called a Best Films Of 2016 list has no intention of providing the same information as a Best Books Of 2016 list, and little chance of revenue-bearing like one either. Reclaiming our authority over art as it currently exists and its effects on people we don’t already know would be a fine idea at this point – and a more challenging destiny than mapping the world from within the walled garden of a film festival, or falling for the flattering idea that the first person to correctly appreciate any given film is surely me myself and I.

Also: a review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will be in the S&S February print issue and is online here. The major unhappy tendency in current films is still a fixation on content while somehow remaining oblivious to form, which in films with the money to polish each pixel individually turns into a grim metallic certainty that hot visuals matter more than invisible things like narrative and character. As articles of faith go, it’s debatable. It became the Last Temptation Of Lucas as well, but his was a singular vision, for better or worse. And Rogue One is not.

The present manners of the nation would deride authority, and therefore nothing is left but that every writer should criticise himself.

– Samuel Johnson, voting in the 1783 Films of the Year poll.

mystic twangs

sam waterston as richard helms

Sam Waterston as “Richard Helms”: what rough beast

Even by the juggernaut logic of remake culture, picking Michael Winner’s very 1970s and Charles Bronson-shaped The Mechanic out of the hat for a revamp – first as a buffed Jason Statham remake and now punted in the general direction of a franchise via an unrequested sequel – seems more like a knee-jerk marketing exercise than anything more rational. The clue is suddenly making the latest incarnation of Arthur Bishop exactly as bulletproof and immortal as your average superhero, so as to fit the template of current audience expectations without scraping the sides – although the actual give away is probably the decision to deploy the mighty colon of intent and call it Mechanic: Resurrection in the first place. Those old Michael Winner films from his US period, choked with dust and death, always deserved more serious critical analysis than they got, and the replacement of that mood with sunny slaughter and weightless green-screen pretence is as revealing as it is dire as it is ineffable. I reviewed Mechanic: Resurrection in the November issue of Sight & Sound, while pondering whether the dearth of meaningful action cinema from any creator not named Michael Mann allows it to be even called a niche any more.

And for the December issue of the same magazine I read Matt Zoller Seitz’s new book The Oliver Stone Experience, which follows the approach of Seitz’s book on Wes Anderson with slightly different results. Stone’s volubility avoids the occasional impression that the Anderson book was the record of an interview in a holding cell, and the photos culled from Stone’s archives are all deeply revealing. On the other hand, Seitz’s genial meandering friendly-witness style, deliberately transferred onto the page intact, makes for some exasperating trips around the conversational houses, and maybe frames some of Stone’s frustrations in a more baldly downbeat note than he himself seems to place them. Reading Stone and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States, which doesn’t discuss his films at all, somehow seems necessary after Seitz’s book to get a fuller picture of the man; that never used to feel the case after finishing any of the Faber & Faber director interview volumes, any ten of which could fit inside Seitz’s book like a school of guppy in a whale. But books like this – books in general – seem to be the only place to carry out meaningful retrospective surgery on films these days, such as rehabilitating Savages from whatever lazy critical wasteland it was pitched into at the time, or flagging up the ten minutes originally deleted from Nixon in which Sam Waterston plays Richard Helms as the devil, probably – a scene I first ran headlong into unawares on the extended dvd and which had me lunging for the rewind button, definitely.

Elsewhere: for Tripwire, a look at another of 2000AD‘s blasts from the past and the last days of its updated version of Dan Dare, Britain’s venerable space-aviator turned here into a heavily armed short tempered weapon of mass destruction in a sheepskin jacket. A product of its time in every sense.

doctor-strange-concept-art

As for my old mate Doctor Stephen Strange: my Marvel-movie fever broke last year when a member of the van Dyne family finally turned up and I discharged myself from superhero cinema’s mobile 4077th field hospital, so the ways in which characters from my youth are winnowed and diminished to fit the rhythms and beats of the MCU template rather than expanded from within to fill the available screen real estate doesn’t raise my pulse any more. As it happens, whatever else may be wrong with Doctor Strange, its framing and pacing feel more like the work of an actual film director than any MCU film since Captain America, although Scott Derrickson has opted not to overturn the drearily masculine atmosphere and is lumbered with the same old familiar macrostructure and Big Finish, the universal language of the trans-national blockbuster. Within it arrives a dreadful Dormammu, part standard Big Cloud monster and part Nome King from Return To Oz, a visual neither interested in nor capable of summoning the formal artistic monstrousness of Steve Ditko’s design or its appalling human form.

If a film in this area really wanted to be distinct it would get Christopher Young to do the music, but short of that hiring Michael Giacchino helps; the theme has the skipping horns of Harry Potter and starts off a bit like The 13th Warrior, but on the level of simple compositional style knocks any of those terrible scores by Henry Jackman that drape like a lead smock over his Captain America films into a distant dimension. Benedict Cumberbatch, looking quite the part in the cloak of levitation and in full waspish arrogant-comeuppance mode, is probably the most authentic actorly turn in the MCU for a while, certainly the first sight of an actor having actual fun since Mickey Rourke asked Sam Rockwell about a cockatoo. At one point, speaking over Giacchino’s harpsichord and sitar twanging, he name-checks Chuck Mangione, which for reasons too obscure to really count gave me the most authentic laugh I’ve had in a superhero film since 1981. He might spice up the flat acting palette of the MCU, if that low bar counts for anything, since this is one of the few characterisations so far to spot that self-knowledge remains the only superhero coin worth minting. Cumberbatch, with his air of a martyr looking for a cross to bear, knows the score. Perhaps, you catch yourself wondering, this is a legitimate translational effort.

Or you would wonder, if the trailer for Logan hadn’t run before the film, suggesting all the things the MCU recoils from with visceral allergic horror: characters willing to be freighted with history and fate and dust, with the consequences of something not unlike Winner’s adult self-knowledge rather than an adolescent’s recognition of the dark side under the bed. James Mangold knows the score better.

the empire of signs

stevehatesfish

For Sight & Sound, a preview of the live-action end of this year’s Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival. The knotty issue of whether films of any length, or art at all, should be dealing in “explorations rather than solutions, atmosphere rather than answers” isn’t supposed to have an easy answer, although Amos Vogel did the world a favour in 1970 by phrasing it that way as a test of which way the wind is blowing. But at some point British films’ reluctance to stray from one side of the street and inclination to fetishise atmosphere at the expense of all else will have to be prised open for a look inside. The festival subsequently gave its top prize to a British short that felt particularly parochial, neatly summarising the dilemma faced jointly by the filmmakers, the mechanisms they work within, and the festivals which should ideally set about doing the prising.

In the Sight & Sound October print issue I reviewed Taika Waititi’s Hunt For the Wilderpeople, which for all its comedy and foreseeable outcome is at least aware of both atmosphere and answers. Anticipation that a director of particular sensibilities will perturb the workings of Marvel’s less than cinematic pre-fab manufacturing operation has been misplaced in the past and may prove to be again; but Waititi seems to be made of sterner stuff, so who knows?

On the Tripwire website, a look at the two-thousandth issue of 2000AD, as an early warm-up exercise for the comic’s fortieth anniversary next year. Anniversary issues usually end up pulled in tight fluffy circles, but as Joe McCulloch pointed out 2000AD has a role as living history over and above whatever it actually publishes. So Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill probably have the right idea, returning to Nemesis and expressing suitable disdain for the power of nostalgia by simply carrying on where they left off several corrupt Archbishops ago.

Clever science: using a thread of spider silk as a focusing lens in a microscope, thanks to the strange things that can happen when light falls on very small cylinders and spheres.

As is: improved diagnosis of potential oesophageal cancer, by modifying both the fluorescent marker that identifies malignant tissue and the endoscope that takes a look – this being the latest from the prolific cancer research efforts emerging from the University of Cambridge.

And also: working out why exactly retinal implants don’t deliver high quality vision to patients by mapping what happens on a cellular level, and then tweaking things so that they might be able to.

squad goals

Witch craft: not for the first time, The 13th Warrior wins.

Whatever shortcomings unspooled from Suicide Squad and accumulated on the cinema carpet, they were more than matched by the sound of some critics trolling the trolls who were trolling them about it. The muscle memory now chaining critics and audiences together while they grapple on the bridge over the live volcano has become dubious enough without adding a quarrel about the crass behaviour of crowds on social media, a topic where answers have been readily available since about 1982. (“We plan our happenings carefully to be sure that they are thoroughly spontaneous.” wrote Walter Ong, detecting the future in his ZX Spectrum.) There was a time that motivations for film criticism included coequal interests in people and human nature as well as film; what happened to that?

Things like Suicide Squad happened for one thing, films which – as the scientists say – are not even wrong. One core brainstorm of current superhero cinema is trying to pin down the best language to even discuss these cultural items, distilled directly into existence as they are by a corporate will to power without any conventional audience demand pulling them from the other end of the chain. Is “failure” the right word for David Ayer’s attempt – endearingly shambolic while also over-starched straight into deep-freeze – to be more cinematic than the regular Marvel output, and deal in themes more chewy than the panto liberalism of Captain America? Doubtful. An unhelpful diversion while working that out is the confusion between form and content that seems to have set in for the duration, a quick route to the critical back of beyond, and Suicide Squad is a lottery jackpot of all the stuff that gets put in the wrong column: marketing made flesh, text and sub-text that don’t mesh, character self-actuation and design rather than character development, non-threatening palatable darkness as entertainment, prosaic visuals with an interior feel even when they’re outside, and that odd stilted synergy that doesn’t actually make you want to see the other stuff that’s being referenced (plus unfulfilled expectations from the trailers, although by now that’s an established compliment to the relevant editors deep in the Warners gulag).

The standard theory is that Warner Bros is thrashing around blindly, but that notion didn’t hold up particularly well to the sheer heft of Batman v Superman, Zack Snyder’s mining operation at the far end of the periodic table, and doesn’t fare much better now in the face of Margot Robbie’s spirited burlesque as Harley Quinn. She’s lively and modern and disconsolate enough to suggest that the scope of the character’s awful ambivalence – a brutalised woman grabbing her own destiny specifically to set fire to it and cackle at the ashes – didn’t escape anyone’s notice, even if it also slipped through everyone’s fingers. Compared to Jared Leto’s direly misjudged Joker, a petulant millennial poltergeist from somewhere deep in Snapchat’s skunk works, Robbie practically fluoresces with actorly certainties – which is always where the trapdoor really opens, since these characters are founded on ambiguities in their home medium, and the one they’ve landed in prefers to squash all uncertainty flat.

Corporate cartooning has its own related crises going on – DC Comics has embraced the wrong path with even more enthusiasm than the rest of them – but the only way to avoid the uniquely participatory two-way mental process involved in reading comics is to glue the pages together. Short of that, a deliberately troubled and troubling character like Harley Quinn will contain multitudes, reflecting readers back towards themselves just as the inventors of written fiction intended. The kind of reader involvement inherent in the very nature of cartoons usually crops up in films only after some Herculean effort of maverick genius or screens to an audience of fifty – only the masters of cinematic dream logic really get close to the fragile ambiguities invoked. But the changing position of pop-culture in the landscape now demands that several hundred million dollars of Hollywood definitiveness lands on Harley Quinn and the rest like several hundred million kilos of dead weight. Instead of certainty, or much by way of fun, the operation conjures instead a big unhappy paradox, a hopelessly contradictory wish to treat these (in the best sense) childish archetypes as if they might be modern protagonists for adults. It’s an act of fetishisation, pop culture moving to the centre prior to nailing itself to the cross. Only a fool would not want fairer, more diverse, more equitable societies; but if you’re looking to Harley Quinn to lead you there then something significant has happened to her place in the culture, to say nothing of your relationship with Harley Quinn. Warners seem in fact to be engaged in a drastic experiment, besieged in an exploding laboratory under a sky of nothing but storm clouds, testing all these doomy contradictions to breaking point as well as retrofitting a thesis on the scope and affect of panel art beyond the dreams of Scott McCloud. The only uncertainty now is exactly how deliberately they ever embarked on it in the first place.

Understanding_Comics_why_are_we_so_involved

sabotaged

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Hiring dancers to act in a film always makes everyone else look like they’re moving underwater. Star Trek Beyond dozes off, but the last sight before slumber is Sofia Boutella still pivoting under unseen internal tensions and lounging furiously and looking like she might be capable of pouncing from a prone position, a neat trick. And if most of her dialogue sounds like it was written underwater too, that’s hardly her problem.

The rest probably deserves to sink. It’s a drastic course correction by Paramount away from JJ Abrams’ crystalline intellectual rigour in favour of something that in the circumstances would have to be called fast and furious, but to what end? Tough to claim that it’s really aligned with the spirit of the original series just because of a lack of lens flare – not when the film nearly swoons at the prospect of a swarm of holographic James Kirks riding 20th Century motorbikes spraying CGI concrete behind them, or requiring him to trip four switches in the correct order in order to blow the film’s level boss out of an airlock. And both of those are surface-level phenomena. A move away from space action in these space tales is an established red flag of modest ambitions – a switch Abrams tripped himself in Star Wars – replacing the heavyweight physics of battleships with the weightless biology of Tomb Raider, all prison breaks and camouflage and goals and targets, filmed by Justin Lin in a style amounting to point and shoot. The villain – weighed down by obligatory forced causal link to the hero – notes how utopian military and political union tends to just leave bodies bleeding in the gutter, but the background hum of pop-sociology that tries to juice all these films with some modern resonance is really just homeopathy at this point. The Beastie Boys are eventually dragged into things as well, so fannish a flourish that it’s simultaneously hard to knock and an objective low point for Star Trek, doing without the old hints that the series knew how to be funny from a philosophical and performative standpoint rather than a self-reflexive one. So far no director ever grasped that better than William Shatner himself, a lesson learned beneath a mountain of tribbles and never forgotten.

(pic)

nun of the above

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This year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival produced a couple of items by me likely to surface presently in Sight & Sound magazine, and more immediate reactions to:

Flag Without A Country in which Bahman Ghobadi follows the redoubtable Kurdish singer Helly Luv all the way to the front lines against ISIS, probably followed by the smart money on the outcome.
The Virgin Psychics which shapes up to be Carry On Horny Godzilla before missing that golden opportunity.
Little Men another chapter of Ira Sachs’s analysis of urban New York which is probably going to add up to a future syllabus on the topic at some later date.
The Commune which decides to say strangely little about a historical moment, although the miles of beige fabric on show say plenty.

Human nature was fraying under pressure in the UK by the end of the festival; but all four of these had something to say on the topic in one way or another, proving that art never stops mattering.

The announcement of the festival’s prize winners confirmed that I didn’t see a single one of them, but also meant that EIFF missed the chance to pin its International laurel onto Zach Clark’s Little Sister, the most self-assured film in the programme by some distance. I’m on record somewhere about two of his earlier films, which both seemed to twitch with a jittery ground-level static built up just from the act of their own creation – and also admired rather than loved White Reindeer, a test of how some Sirk-ian melodrama might work in an age where we all know what goes on in the suburbs and have seen all the films.

Little Sister moulds the essences of both styles around a seemingly calmer story, but one that is still spiky enough to support both empathy for its familial pains and a perspective on the world they’re emerging from – which happens to be the world of George W Bush and the Iraq disaster. It involves a terrific show of muted resilience from Addison Timlin – time to state out loud that Mr. Clark is among the finest directors of low-key female durability currently in business – playing a character working towards a life governed by faith, whose faith is daringly neither mocked nor leached away by the film. In fact it’s confirmed, through her confrontation with the physical effects on someone she loves of the equally religious world of improvised explosive devices shaping up over the horizon. Not for nothing does the physical reality of those wounds borrow something from the visuals of excessively flamboyant European horror films – not to mention from Kevin Bacon’s post-latex period in Hollow Man – in a film of calm compassion, if not outright contemplation, and Italianate style more generally. But then not for nothing does Barbara Crampton, once of director Stuart Gordon’s parish, appear in the film as a long-suffering Reverend Mother, beautifully photographed by Daryl Pittman as if she was limned by faith itself.

All this sits inside an initially familiar Clark-ish wrapper of North Carolina houses and porches and yards. Characters like Molly Plunk’s affable eco-terrorist – a label to conjure with in the circumstances – and the pair of happily content lesbians encountered at a Halloween party don’t exactly echo individuals in the previous films so much as align in sympathy, for reasons emerging from the casting as much as anything else; as if the universe was resonating along familiar lines.

Maybe it is. The director’s other films have also waded into thorny tangles of love and fraught understanding and done so with gusto; but Little Sister has a bigger heart in its chest and a bigger sky over its head than they did. It’s a film about faith without necessarily being a film of faith, and astute about human nature as well as American nightmares. It’s a reminder of what indie energy looks like on a wide screen when it works on classical lines with subtlety and grace in a modern context, right down to the fact that it’ll presumably meet its ultimate audience on a much smaller screen altogether. And a reminder that art either engages with how people tick or it doesn’t, and the distinction about which category is which is not hard to make.