.The Woods, the Cell, and the Dry Gulch

Antichrist writhes. Bronson beats. The Canyon hikes on the wild side.

Onward we trek into the deepest recesses of Lars von Trier’s mind. The Danish writer-director of art films, who first made a name for himself in the early Nineties as a visual stylist with a flair for the bizarre (Europa aka Zentropa, The Kingdom), forcefully established his histrionic credentials with the stressful marital drama Breaking the Waves (1996) and has essentially never looked back. Von Trier’s on-again, off-again experiment with the “Dogma” approach to rigorous filmmaking — no special effects, hand-held camera, filmed on location, etc. — eventually simmered down to a sort of controlled minimalism, at least in the visual sense.

Von Trier’s angst, however, remains at full boil. Witness Antichrist, his latest, a gothic psychodrama about a married couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) who sequester themselves in a log cabin in the forest in order to thrash out their feelings over the death of their young son. The therapy assumes strange shapes. The forest itself seems menacing. At times, their ordeal resembles a parody of an old-fashioned European art movie — only with hardcore-sex inserts and graphic scenes of mutilation. But von Trier persists. In his press notes, he explains that Antichrist grew out of his own bout with depression as well as from his admiration for playwright August Strindberg, and that this is “the most important film of my entire career.” In other words, von Trier is betting the farm on this one.

Dafoe and Gainsbourg suffer above and beyond the call of duty as the guilty lovers, dedicated to purging their grief by a combination of rough sex, images of witchcraft discovered in the attic, close observation of woodland creatures (the animals seem to be giving birth en masse), and plenty of good old-fashioned sadomasochism in the wrestling match between Good and Evil. A few of the set pieces are truly startling, especially one in which the naked Gainsbourg masturbates in the moonlight, on her back amid a dark tangle of tree roots. Gainsbourg appears fully nude in a few scenes, Dafoe may be using a body double, but there’s no hiding their intensity.

Von Trier unfortunately undermines his own material. There’s a talking varmint. The wife shackles her husband by driving a bolt through his calf and fastening a heavy grindstone to his leg — while he sleeps! The cinematic references pile up. Is von Trier trying to remake Pasolini’s Salo or just creating his own version of Saw VI? He claims the influence of Strindberg (might as well add Bergman, Sokurov, and Tarkovsky, tasteful doom merchants all), but we can’t help thinking it’s a combo of Eli Roth and Carl Dreyer. Intensity alone is not enough to lift Antichrist off the forest floor. Von Trier’s personal demons are thrillingly cinematic, but they’re his, not necessarily ours.

Another Dane, writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn, also obliterates the border between the art house and the grind house with Bronson, a sort of one-man stage show with spectacular extras, about “Britain’s most violent prisoner,” played with WWF-style mock-solemnity by actor Tom Hardy. Based on the real-life career of one Mickey Peterson, a violent sociopath who’d rather fight anyone blocking his way than surrender to authority, Bronson charts the tough guy’s progress from juvenile delinquent to permanent inmate: 34 years behind bars, thirty of those in solitary. His nickname, “Charles Bronson,” was given to him by an acquaintance — Peterson’s original choice was “Charlton Heston.”

Bronson is full of similar baroque grotesqueries. The classical music soundtrack is what seals the deal. It adds a Kubrick touch to Bronson’s brutality as he negotiates a minefield of potential victims and inevitable handlers. The sight of a muscle-bound, naked skinhead getting clobbered by a herd of prison guards somehow takes on a different shade when it’s set to Wagner or Delibes. Filmmaker Refn, who made the ultra-violent Pusher films, never attempts to psychologize Bronson’s behavior, except to point out that even from an early age he punched as a first resort. Everything else — the “fight club” career, the years of prison-administered drugs, Bronson’s cloud-cuckoo “therapeutic” artwork — was imposed on this seemingly primitive man by others, in his case mostly effete officials backed by thuggish guards.

The screenplay, written by Refn and Brock Norman Brock, doesn’t waste valuable time showing Bronson’s vulnerable side — there isn’t any. Character acting honors to Hugh Ross as Uncle Jack, Matt King as Paul the boxing promoter, and James Lance as Bronson’s penitentiary art teacher. Whatever suspense there is comes from observing Bronson doing a slow burn in frame with one of his tormentors/victims as we wonder just when he’s going to explode. After ninety minutes this ceases to be interesting, but Bronson just keeps coming, straight ahead, like a bull charging through the slaughterhouse door.

The “vacation in hell” is one of the movies’ most durable and popular genres. From Deliverance to The Hills Have Eyes to River Wild to The Beach, it’s reliably cathartic, almost an act of purification, to watch an unsuspecting family, group of teenagers, or solo traveler fall into a deadly trap that we can see clearly, but which appears harmlessly routine to the victim.

Director Richard Harrah’s The Canyon sets us up early. From the moment newlyweds Nick (Eion Bailey) and Lori (Yvonne Strahovski) check into the Cheap & Clean Motel on their way to a honeymoon trip mule-packing through the Grand Canyon, we know they’re already tagged and bagged. The only question is: Who’s going to do the honors? Will it be the surly motel manager (Wendy Worthington) muttering dyspeptically behind the counter? Or Henry, the seedy guide they hire in a barroom (veteran baddie Will Patton, channeling Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre)? Maybe Nick and Lori will be swarmed by a gang of bikers. Or attacked by rattlesnakes.

The beauty of this modest, almost apologetic outdoor thriller — written by first-timer Steve Allrich — is that although the possibilities are endless, the story proceeds in a straight line with very few sidetracks or deviations. For a story so bald on narrative incident, The Canyon is sweaty-palms scary. Instead of “Don’t go down in the basement, you fool!” it’s WWBGD: What Would Bear Grylls Do? We know what Bear Grylls would do. He’d eat the snake (like the newlyweds do), suck muddy water from a yucca bush, and take off in a helicopter with his crew to a nearby hotel. Nick and Lori don’t have that option. Keep your eyes on the crows.


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