Out on the foggy Yorkshire moors, seen through stoned red eyes and a codeine fug, debut filmmaking brothers Daniel and Matthew Wolfe conjure one of the darkest, most impressive thrillers of recent years. I’ve read several reviews of Catch Me Daddy from its debut at LFF 2014, all of which seem to clock the plot as a straightforward honour killing manhunt. Something the Wolfes are at pains to avoid, as the lives of British Pakistani girl Laila (Sameena Jabeen Ahmed) and her Scottish boyfriend Aaron (Connor McCarron) are teasingly sketched out in the dingy washed out colours of reality. Laila and Aaron are anxious, hidden away on a static caravan site – Laila attempting to live a normal working life, and Aaron getting high and shirking away from anything of the sort. Four Asian men prowl the landscape in their 4x4, enlisting the help of the bigoted hulking lump Barry (Barry Nunney) and his Scotch pal Tony (Gary Lewis) to track them down. Motivations and relationships are obscured by fog and darkness, but what is resoundingly certain is that the couple do not want to be found by these men.
“It’s going to end very bad,” forebodes a cabbie. A warning it’s hard to refute – from the first grim realist second, a sickly air of doom hangs round every character’s neck. There is a comparison to be drawn with fellow Brit director Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights which echoes the howling wind and rain of the moors and a close physicality of cinematography that not so much shows an environment but submerges us in a nauseating three dimensional reality (both films were shot on 35mm by the supremely talented Robbie Ryan). Cocaine cut with a faded Tesco Clubcard, a spilt bottle of turquoise nail polish, a sticky floored provincial night club – a dank verisimilitude underpins every moment. So while the bones of the plot are the Wolfes’ sturdy framework, what penetrates deepest is the encroaching dread about to consume these very real people, locked in this very real world.
There is a directness and familiarity to the manhunt story that permits the woozy atmospherics and slow-burning construction to weave around the characters while it simultaneously propels us forward – pulling drug-fuelled paranoia and tension ever tighter. Moments of bloody ultra violence spike outward from the film’s haze, as does the angular blaring pop music from Nicki Minaj and Patti Smith. One moment our feet are on solid ground, next, the room begins to violently spin.
Recurrent imagery of exotic beasts in cages is none too subtle in its metaphor, but there is something intoxicating about the peculiarity of an albino snake or bearded dragon set against the concrete estates and barren moors. Likewise the striking Sameena Jabeen Ahmed, whose green eyes and dyed pink hair flicker with a vibrancy unwilling to be contained by familial tradition – or her boyfriend. It’s an impressive debut turn from the young actress who, with a natural assurance, embodies the disorientated apprehension required of Laila.
The Wolfe brothers have shaped a traditional thriller into a taut, woozy nightmare of kebab meat and weed smoke. Catch Me Daddy demonstrates a sharp understanding of genre, but has the ambition and urgency to reach viscerally deeper, creating a thriller that deservedly bears the name – and one which will linger in your nightmares.
[ 2014 — Dir: Daniel Wolfe — 112 mins — IMDb ]
This is one of those films you dream of being asked to review. A weird, mysterious adventure that more than lives up to its strikingly absurdist plot synopsis: a Japanese office worker unearths a battered VHS copy of the Coen Brothers' Fargo buried deep inside a coastal cave and, believing it a work of fact, sets off to Minnesota to seek the suitcase full of money buried in a snowdrift by Steve Buscemi. This is the tantalisingly odd thread that pulls us silently through the tale, while American director David Zellner weaves in some social commentary, cultural isolation and something close to ethereal existentialism. It’s a wonderfully tragic, uplifting and atmospheric piece of cinema.
As Kumiko fires up the barely visible, stuttering tape on her VCR, attempting to trace a map from the TV screen, there is omnipresent melancholy about her futile ambition. But, nagging away at the periphery of your thoughts are the film’s opening moments where her map does lead her to the tape itself. There are only two outcomes for Kumiko: she’ll find the treasure, or she won’t. Is she delusional, desperately seeking any distraction from the mundanity and expectations of life? Or is she living proof of the power of self-belief, that anything can be achieved with dogged faith?
In her late twenties, she is constantly castigated by her boss for being too old for office work, as the younger models with immaculate hair and nails parade around in front of her. Likewise, infrequent phone-calls with her mother are nothing but pressure to marry or get promoted. Even an awkward meeting with an old colleague and her son causes her to sprint away from spending time alone with the child. She lives to hunt treasure, to get the working week out of the way to decipher clues and stitch maps alone in her cramped apartment – as her twitching bunny ‘Bunzo’ looks on. Kumiko cannot, and won’t, conform. And seemingly won’t find happiness or contentment until her arms are clasped around the suitcase. How long has the quest run already? How did it begin? Why does she need the money? The film shuns anything as boring as answers. But what is clear is that it is never a greed driving her forward, more a desire for solitude – to push away the world around her.
In what is predominantly a downbeat affair, Zellner captures a decent echo of the Coens' dry wit and idiosyncratic characters, that slots hand in hand with the general chilly stasis of the film to permit it to entertain while simultaneously confounding. Loaded with the unknown from the outset, dialogue is scant and an impressive edit lets the story and motivations naturally unfurl as time passes. This unconventional structure places more import on Rinko Kikuchi’s performance. Remarkable in her minimal, nuanced turn, she allows us to read what is swirling around inside Kumiko’s diminutive shell through expression alone.
Every cult film needs its iconic moment, and as Kumiko rips a hole in a garishly patterned bedspread, pulling it over her head like a poncho and trudging out into the Midwestern snow, it finds it. More mysterious than the man with no name, and far more bloody-minded. Its art lies in not directing us to pity or to champion her. We always urge on an outsider battling the norm – but one who is apparently driving forward into a snowy abyss? We want her success and happiness, but the form they should take is far from certain.
Strange, beautiful and captivating – seek out Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter to remember how individual and ambitious films can be. What each viewer finds will be different, but it is not an experience swiftly forgotten.
[ 2014 — Dir: David Zellner — 105 mins — IMDb ]
A swirling semi-conscious dream fluttering on the borders of reality – Peter Strickland’s third feature finds him again playing with a 1970’s flavour after his nightmarish journey through giallo in 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio. Beginning with an extended title sequence that playfully lists perfume and lingerie among its credits, the tactile, sexually charged world of detail and atmosphere is vividly drawn from the outset. An ancient house swathed in ivy, ornate furniture and elaborate lace; it almost appears too considered, like the props and fixtures positioned in a long vacant stately home. Here lies Strickland’s intention, a film filled with dichotomy and perplexity that gleefully challenges with its every trance-like moment.
The hip-swinging, sultry Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) tortures her diminutive maid as she cleans her home – “I think it’s better that you stay by my feet and continue doing what I ask you” – finding fault with every tiny detail and forcing humiliation upon her. But before long this caustic relationship is revealed to be little more than the consenting sadomasochism of a loving relationship, that Cynthia dutifully performs to fulfil the insatiable, submissive appetite of Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) – a passionless routine that the entomologist has grown tired of, longing to embrace her partner without all the formality and elaboration that must live around it, the line of the dominance in the relationship veering with each new snippet that is divulged.
Bewigged shop mannequins make up the numbers in a lecture, a slightly awkward performance from Chiara D’Anna in an unplaceable accent, and a couple locked in an endless cycle of fetishised make believe – the film gives us nothing solid to place our hand upon as it dismantles and woozily distorts everything we believe as truth. While this slippery beast of winged insects and musty rooms is absorbing as a spectacle, the fraught emotions between the couple are where the film’s magnetic power really dwells. Sidse Babett Knudsen is sensational as Cynthia, whose transformative quality from stern matriarch to concerned lover – occasionally over the course of a sentence – enables the more hallucinogenic inflections to work, without disrupting the beating human heart of the film.
An ethereal dreamscape that is whispered in the ear and seen through a microscope, with a throbbing, pulsing score spiked with sharper harpsichord tones or the ear-bleeding screech of a record insect – in every second of The Duke of Burgundy there lives a contradiction or polarity, and there is always something to gaze upon with interest. While there is much of the strange and beautiful to admire, Strickland hasn’t lost his sense of humour and finds many absurdist moments of black comedy in the couple’s world of master and servant. Cynthia and Evelyn’s reality, and love, has become lost in routine and repetition. The Duke of Burgundy can be taken as the lesbian bondage romp the 70’s marketers would surely have pitched it as, but it’s far more satisfying as an allegory for any long-term relationship and the shifting roles and pressures they place on both parties. Sexual fantasy is at the stylistic centre, but Peter Strickland’s work of rich atmospherics and wild imagination is as equally fascinated with the characters it surrounds.
[ 2014 — Dir: Peter Strickland — 106 mins — TBC cert — IMDb ]
The Duke of Burgundy screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2014. Find out more here.
As Ben Wheatley attests in an interview supplied with this high definition restoration, Stanley Kubrick is a genre in himself. For 1956’s The Killing is a noir second, and a Kubrick film first. The heist set-up, deceptions and characters are classic noir, but the artistry of the construction is something far more impressive. His third film at the age of 27, he described the heist thriller as his “first mature work”, and looking back on the director's 43 year career behind the camera the hallmarks of his obsession with image are vividly apparent – if not aesthetically. But the great man’s life and work is discussed in depth by Peter Krämer’s enjoyable essay packaged with an accompanying booklet. So what of The Killing itself?
Electrified from its opening shots of a bustling racetrack scored with a cacophony of galloping, pounding brass, The Killing weaves together the lives of deadbeats and rogues in a time slipping structure that pulls the tension ever tauter over its focused 85 minutes. Narration pushes us back and forth through the days, lending the proceedings a ceaseless pace and just the right level of mystery and ambiguity around the edges of the plot. This sense of secrecy and deep involvement in the heist’s outcome is viscerally amplified by some exceptional camerawork that tracks the gang in a restless sideways motion, peering from behind plants and round the edges of door frames. Kubrick makes us co-conspirators overhearing the hushed scheming and double crossing from our hidden vantage point.
Sterling Hayden’s exquisitely named ex-con Johnny Clay hatches the perfect robbery to knock off $2M from the local track. Drafting in a meek clerk, a barman, a cop and a few other degenerates, the ruse is slickly put in place around the high stakes featured race of the day. There is much planning to be done, but the structure is such that we are only privy to fragmented pieces of the plan – drawing us deeper into the heist with every isolated scene as we edge towards the big day. Many of the best lines go to the scene stealing Marie Windsor, as the adulterous wife of the bookie. A woman with a dollar sign where her heart should be, who would “sell out her own mother for a piece of fudge”. The film is full of these fascinating idiosyncratic characters: Timothy Carey’s wild-eyed sharpshooter speaking through his oversized clenched teeth, Kola Kwariani’s chess playing, bear-like foreign wrestler. They all get equal screen time, and it’s all the more engaging for it.
The Killing is classic Kubrick in terms of its punctuation of the yarn with emblematic, iconic imagery. Even if it’s a film you’ve never seen, Clay in his creepy rubber clown mask is burnt into cinema history. Equally the kinetic photography of the horse races themselves is something special to behold. These and a slew of further images – the cutout gangster targets, the climactic dollar bills fluttering in the night air – make the movie, not just another noir, or an early marker on Stanley Kubrick’s rise, but a hugely enjoyable, utterly timeless thriller. Few heist films have ever since had this razor sharp focus, cinematic ambition or the narrative dexterity to keep us guessing till the last.
[ 1956 — Dir: Stanley Kubrick — 85 mins — IMDb ]