Since it was released a decade ago Oldboy has felt almost like a dare to American filmmakers. The shock still hasn’t come off of it. It is a caustic film, rage choked in a way that makes it feel legitimately dangerous on a level above the average foreign melodrama or fanboy geek show. And it accomplished this not because it pushed away from American ideals of filmmaking but because it embraced and made sweet unnatural love to them. Oldboy isn’t a great film because it’s unlike anything we’ve seen before, we know the tools it uses; a premise that is like some sort of Hitchcockian platonic ideal, an eye for action and a well shot showdown, a gripping mystery and a gloating villain. Like Oh Dae Su’s hammer, Oldboy takes these familiar tools and uses them to hurt us- to say nothing of the hero. And ever since Tarantino anointed it with the Grand Prix it’s like it's been grinning, asking, “Can you do the same? Can you still hit this hard? Play this rough?”
Well points for trying.
Out of all the directors who have taken up, and then put down the challenge I found Lee the most intriguing in a just crazy enough to work sort of way (yes even more than Spielberg- let’s face it fellas there was no way certain stuff was going to show up in a Spielberg movie, in one of his “This Is For A Serious Purpose” films such as Munich sure, but not one of his “entertainments.”) Sure it was nothing much like anything else in his filmography, but then again there’s no two films that are much like one another in Lee’s filmography. While there’s a certain image everyone has of a Spike Lee joint, he’s also able to put on other writer’s voices (albeit through his own filter) like Richard Price or David Benioff, step offstage for his documentaries and follow his various muses through the structures of musicals and biopics. Nothing in his filmography immediately made me think of him for Oldboy, both nothing discouraged that notion either.
It’s not even fair to stand by the old critical phrases like “interesting failure” when it comes to Oldboy, because Oldboy doesn’t so much fail as it does succeed at aims that no one else is going for. It’s as though Lee invented an alloy that no one knows what to do with, let alone wants.
The smartest decision Lee makes with the material (and oddly enough the one he seems loath to admit to) is setting the film in New Orleans. By transplanting Oldboy into the south, he transforms the story into an maniac Southern Gothic. It’s one of those head slapping, “Why the hell didn’t I think of that,” ideas, because it’s the only Western context in which Oldboy can even be parsable. Set Oldboy anywhere else and the long imprisonment and web of incest at the heart of its plot would seem outlandish, but in the south, well that just feels like another day in Yoknapatawpha County.
Brolin does dedicated work bringing “Joe Doucett” to life. Both as the grieving monster he becomes when he’s unleashed and as the tormented figure he embodies when he’s torn down again and again. The hotel sequence at least matches the original, and nearly tops it with Lee cooking up a vignette involving a short lived pet of Brolin’s that’s more personally cruel than anything that happened to Oh Dae Su. When he’s unleashed, he’s less showy than Min-sik Choi’s performance, but arguably more damaged. In one key substitute Lee exchanges a scene where Dae Su fought a street gang in some generic violence, with Joe going up against some well meaning Dudebros in the middle of a pick up game, who as far as they know are merely trying to prevent an assault. Brolin nearly cripples them. There’s a real sense that he may no longer be a man fit to be released. That the damage done to him has already run too deep and may be permanent.
And it’s moments like these that make it all the more frustrating when Oldboy just goes dead for long periods of time. Including the infamous Hammer sequence which now plays out with all the impact of Side Scroller The Movie (though interestingly enough Lee has a much better handle on the up close and personal violence that precedes it). There are some, well let’s call them deliberate, choices that make up the film. You’d be hard pressed to find a bigger Sharlto Copley fan than I, but man I’m not sure what’s going on here. I’m not going to be as condemnatory as nearly every other review I read, because it feels like he was giving Lee exactly what he was asking for. But he plays the mastermind, the cancerous heart of the mystery, as history's most malignant Upper Class Twit Of The Year contestant.
His character is Lee’s most overt political statement in the film, portraying the one percent as decadent and depraved lunatics. Emphasized by one of the few deviations from the plot that Lee makes underlines this with a sequence, that once again, only works if you’re thinking of Oldboy as a Southern Gothic.
Lee does makes some other changes to the ending, though not the one you are thinking of, credit Elizabeth Olsen for not flinching from the material (and while we’re at it Michael Imperiolli does well and Samuel Jackson seems to be having the most fun). And, just for a little extra kick of confusion out the door, I’m reasonably sure I find this ending more satisfying than the original’s.
So here we have a movie equal parts infuriating and fascinating. One that strings perhaps forty minutes of electric scenes between eighty minutes of dead weight. I can’t in good consciousness recommend Oldboy to anyone as a film. But I would absolutely recommend anyone who was interested see it as an experiment. I guess at the end of the day I feel like my biggest problem is that if someone were to capture Spike Lee and pose him two all important questions of his own, “Why a remake?” and “Why this film?” I’m not sure he could answer.
And now to a remake that I’ve just been plain too dispirited to write about until Oldboy got me thinking about it again.
Let me be perfectly clear, there are other directors whose underuse disappoints me. Kim Peirce is the only one who makes me angry.
It’s not just because she’s an auteurist woman working in a field where both are in short supply. It’s because she’s really fucking good. If the director of Boys Don’t Cry and Stop Loss had a nine and five year gap between films respectively and was named Jim Bob I would still be pissed. And unlike so many films that get shucked for their last ounce of name recognition Carrie was ripe for reinterpretation.
Few works capture the nastiness of adolescence as sharply as Carrie. The rage, the isolation, the loneliness, the thwarted potential, none of it has aged a jot. And in the wake of cyber bullying scandals, school violence and the highly publicized rash of gay teen suicides Carrie hardly needed to remind anyone that it was still a pertinent, potent piece of material. So let’s just recap. We have a remake that is:
A) More socially relevant than ever.
B) Despite the excellence of the previous adaptation, there was material in King’s novel that just couldn’t be portrayed at the time, most of Carrie’s apocalyptic final rampage was excised. Leaving plenty of plumb new material to mine for the new adaptation.
C) Would be helmed by a director who not only would almost have to offer a more interesting take on the gender politics than Brian DePalma, who has always had a well let’s just call it complicated relationship with women, but who knows the rhythms of small town life in her bones. This was someone who wouldn’t just make Carrie matter, she’d make it hurt.
So there you have it. A remake with a bonafide reason, strike that, multiple reasons to exist. Why the only way they could screw it up is if they ignored the book completely, pretended that the last thirty five years never happened, and just readapted DePalma’s film!
…anybody want to guess what they did?
It’s hard to know who to be mad at with Carrie. Sure Chloe Moretz was miscast, but she does honorable work, and she’s able make at least one line near the end really hurt. I understand that Peirce may not have had as free of a hand as she was accustomed to and some of her detractors have been unfair in their criticism of her handling of her horror material, there’s at least one gore gag here that goes cheekily far, and while her prom scene may not match DePalma’s it has its moments. Julianne Moore does fine work as Margret White. It would be easy enough to call it a hard won single, off of what should have been an easy grand slam.
And yet, the sheer, stubborn unwillingness of Carrie to engage with anything leaves such rationalizing feeling hollow. There’s NOTHING new here, no unused material from the book, no attempt to understand the new kind of bullying that will follow kids home through their computer, no attempt to portray how questions of sexuality are used as an attack, no new empathy, no new insight. It might as well have been titled Carrie! Again! And that’s the last thing it should have been.
Well it made money at least, which means that maybe Peirce’s next film will get off the Launchpad a bit easier. But now her all too short CV carries something else new. A disappointment.
So in case you missed it I’m now writing a weekly column forParacinema about Cheaply Licensed movies. Hurrah! And there was much rejoicing.
Oh also I saw Frozen, it was pretty neat.