For a review of “American Assassin,”
What role does emotion play in violence? This is the rather high- minded philosophical question at the core of the rather schlocky spy picture “American Assassin,” though the film itself doesn’t offer any clear answers on that. It’s difficult to puzzle out any morals about what motivates violence and how trauma manifests when the film just leans into more and more numbingly graphic images of human destruction.
Directed by Michael Cuesta with an efficient brutality, based on the book by Vince Flynn, with a script by Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, “American Assassin” is like if the evening news threw up on a screenplay, or if every current event coalesced into a single nightmare. It starts with a mass shooting, involves plenty of explicit torture and ends with Navy destroyers in peril and nuclear bombs in play. Escapist, “American Assassin” is not.
The scrappily appealing “TeenWolf” and “Maze Runner” star Dylan O’Brien stars as Mitch Rapp, a young man who loses everything in a terrorist attack and becomes hellbent on seeking revenge. The first third of the film, in which he poses as an American jihadi in order to infiltrate a terror cell, is rather fascinating, a portrait of reckless young male energy channeled in all the wrong ways for all the right reasons.
But soon, Mitch has been intercepted and recruited to the CIA, where he is taken to a top- secret, unlicensed training campmarshalled by special forces trainer Stan Hurley ( an off- leash Michael Keaton). There, he molds his charges into killing machines via brutal bouts of fisticuffs in the woods, virtual reality taser shootouts and extremely aggro macho posturing.
Hurley subscribes to an extreme form of training that’s intended to hammer out all emotion from his young proteges. He triggers Mitch’s trauma over and over again while shouting, “You let emotion cloud your judgment! Never let it get personal!” In Hurley’s world, this toxic masculinity, which shuns any expression of emotion or effect, is a way to get closer to reason and purpose through violence and dehumanization. Mitch is just too emotional for that, going rogue on a mission in Istanbul, recklessly acting on impulse.
As we come to discover, Hurley’s methods have some pitfalls. The trauma he inflicts on others doesn’t always result in perfect killing automatons — sometimes it results in deeply damaged and dangerous men, like Ghost ( Taylor Kitsch). And as it turns out, Mitch’s emotional motivations for his work do make him a better assassin, if that’s even a good thing.
Though moral questions tumble around “American Assassin,” the film itself relies on so many cliches it can never be trusted to give a truly profound statement. Starting with a classic “dead wife” home video, the film proceeds through training montages and “Bourne Identity”- style European ops missions, complete with a female comrade, Annika ( Shiva Negar) to do the requisite empathy and gentle wound dabbing that’s so completely hackneyed by this point. Watching O’ Brien violent ly water board her later is not an effective way to upend any female stereotypes.
Ultimately, “American Assassin” proves to be yet another example of Hollywood’s continued valorization and legitimation of psychopathic men, murderers who are presented here as heroes doing official government work. It’s what “American Assassin” reflects about our culture that is far more chilling than anything in the story itself.
“American Assassin,” a CBS Films release, is rated R for language, violence and nudity. Running time: 111 minutes. ½
It’s the houseguests from hell in writer- director Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, the bonkers “mother!” starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as a couple living in an isolated, rambling country house, who have to contend with some rambunctious invaders.
Based off the trailer and poster, many have surmised that this is Aronofsky’s tribute to “Rosemary’s Baby,” and there are similarities: the waifish young blonde wife ( Lawrence), the egotistical artist husband ( Bardem), the overbearing older couple ( Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer), whomake themselves athome despite the discomfort of the subservient, passive bride.
The films share character types and the theme of pregnancy and parenthood, but “mother!” is possessed of a raucous, wild energy that builds to a riotous crescendo, and the villain here is not Satan, but unchecked humanity itself. There’s more than enough evil to go around with the people who assemble in this home.
Cinematically, “mother!” is an expertly executed wild ride. Aronofsky keeps the audience focused completely on the subjective experience of Lawrence’s unnamed young wife, as unwanted guests invade her sanctuary, a huge, lonelyVictorian mansion. The camera follows her as she walks throughout the house, grants us access to her point of view, moves uncomfortably close for nearly abstract close ups of the dewy planes of Lawrence’s face. The overlapping sound design is note perfect. Footfalls take on the tenor of gunshots, voices signal danger, and always, she experiences an overwhelming ringing in her ears.
Lawrence is remarkably restrained throughout the first two- thirds of the film, as the perfect little wife too polite for her own good. She modulates her tone, and never gets mad enough at her rude intruders. When she finally, finally screams, “Get out of my house!” it’s a cathartic experience for her, and the audience.
The film does go completely off the rails at a point where you expect it to end, after all of its exhausting mayhem. But Aronofsky pushes it completely to the limit, drains every drop in the same way that his leading lady does. Lawrence’s press tour has detailed the physical challenges and injuries of this shoot, and Aronofsky holds nothing back. There are some sickeningly violent images that are deeply uncomfortable to watch and toe the line of decency.
Criticswere provided with a director’s statement to be read before the film, elucidating what was on Aronofsky’s mind when he coughed up the screenplay for “mother!” over the course of five feverish days of writing. But the best way to see this film is knowing as little as possible. When we’re clued into Aronofsky’s thought process, it leads to a sense that his metaphor is a little too onthenose as we plunge into the absolutely insane climax of the film.
However, what makes “mother!” brilliant is that it is open enough to read and project your ownexperiences onto it, which makes it deeply personal and universal. More than any metaphor about the state of the world, “mother!” is a film about being in a relationship with a narcissist: someone who takes and takes and takes all of your love down to the very last drop without ever giving anything back. Any viewer can place their own experiences on top of this story, and ultimately, hopefully, honestly consider what it fully means to give, and to take.
“Mother!”, a Paramount Pictures release, is rated R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language. Running time: 120 minutes.
Jennifer Lawrence stars in the new Paramount Pictures film “mother!”