Auteurism is a lot of things; shorthand, a roadmap, a way to spot the fetishes and particularities of an artist's worldview and dig in. But it's also among the quickest way to let a film into your heart. We watch films and love them and start to spot things about the men and women behind the camera that appeal to us, some shared taste or experience. We're far more likely to want to like films made by artists who we think we know or understand and get excited for what happens next. It gives their career a narrative and I, for one, quite like those. A lot of careers can look like geiger counter readings, moving from highs to lows with no rhyme or reason. Not for nothing do critics not have a lot of time for journeymen like Marc Forster or Andrew Davis because they don't seem compelled to say anything about themselves when they drop in and out of genres. For a recent example, look at Noam Murro, director of 300: Rise of an Empire, or 302 as I've been calling it. What can you tell about the Israeli director of Smart People, a snobs vs. slobs quirkfest starring Ellen Page as a young republican, who then waits 6 years before unleashing a sequel to one of the most tonally incoherent films ever made, whose defining feature is its tidal wave of robust, airbrushed abs? I quite enjoyed the titanically stupid 302 (Eva Green's performance is a gift to fans of the outsized), though, I must admit, probably not because of anything Murro thought he was bringing to the project. Maybe it's better that way. If I'd liked Smart People, maybe I'd have felt let down by the fact that 302 has absolutely Nothing in common with it. That keen sting of disappointment can only come when you think you know someone who hasn't taken his coat off yet.
This week I was finally able to see Gareth Evans' The Raid 2, the much-anticipated sequel to his (literal) smash hit The Raid: Redemption. When it was announced that Evans would be making a sequel, I heard many variations on this joke: "I hope there's some actual filmmaking in the next one." I didn't find it more than passingly funny at the time because I rather enjoyed The Raid: Redemption and wanted to see what these young Indo-Welshmen could get up to with a little more money. I liked the image of a couple of punks with a little money remaking their favourite movies with some homespun tricks that no one else in the world would have dreamt up - in this case the Silat martial arts that the stars/choreographers have mastered. You could argue that Evans' chops as an action director come from stealing whole chapters from the Assault on Precinct 13 playbook, but when our hero, Iko Uwais, begins taking on all-comers in elastic hand-to-hand combat all concerns about technique go right out the window for a good portion of the audience. I could see who was kicking who in the face and loved every second of it and that was all that mattered. When he produced the best of four segments in V/H/S/2 I thought for sure his talents must be only getting stronger. I stand by "Safe Haven" and The Raid: Redemption as singularly thrilling experiences, even now, in the shadow of what came next.
The Raid 2 does make good on the promise of The Raid: Redemption in many ways, but it also proved all of Evans' critics right. For the first hour, The Raid 2 was a little heartbreaking. The fighting lacked the intensity of the first film and the actors seemed like they were trying not to hurt each other because they were. The downside to practiced, real fighting is that the actors have to take it easy on each other and for the duration of the opening prison scenes, it shows. Worse, they've added a higher quotient of gore to make up for it, nudity in one bafflingly bum note, and the camera at times seems like it too was trying to get in on the frenzied action, ducking blows rather than presenting a coherent view of what the hell we're meant to care about in the fray. None of this helps the film, and at worst they feel like pandering to teenagers. Then the plot kicks in. Iko Uwais' character goes missing for long stretches and the movie wants to be about stuff. Put simply, Evans' Johnny To impression isn't anywhere near as good as his John Carpenter. The men who play our chief heavies look far too young to possess anything but comic book villainy, especially given that one of them is never seen without his sunglasses, cane and leather gloves, like an ultraviolent version of Unbreakable's Mr. Glass. The plot, such as it is, is rote and Evans knows it. It's an excuse to get to the ass kickings, which is what he clearly enjoys directing. The camera's jittery impatience between beatdowns gets old fast; we're all waiting for the fight choreography yet the plot refuses to budge. New elements are introduced, more characters we will never properly know, a cascade of deaths that are mere windowdressing yet are delivered with an unattractive cruelty. And then there's the changes in Uwais himself, which he have no choice but to notice. Part of what made him such a lovable presence the first time was his diminutive stature, his cute, boyish looks, and the fact that everyone underestimates him. In The Raid 2 Uwais has bulked up considerably to tackle the more demanding stunts he and Evans have written. He's no longer the underdog and I found liking him much more of an uphill battle than it should have been considering how effortlessly he grabbed my sympathy in The Raid: Redemption. His confidence is unnattractive and Evans doesn't give him a challenge worthy of his skill for the first hour and change. Uwais' abandoning his family to go deep cover stopped looking heroic and I finally understood why people don't like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. When the narrative ditches him for what feels like an hour, not only did I forget to like him, I forgot he was in the movie.
It was during these stretches of actionlessness that I realized that what The Raid 2 most resembles is the film I thought Nic Winding Refn's Only God Forgives was going to be based soley on the trailers. The ornate wallpaper, the slow dolly shots, the wierdly lackluster kickboxing, the perfunctory cops-and-robbers plot. This was everything I thought Only God Forgives was supposed to be, but it also wanted for Refn's best tendencies as a director. It lacked purpose and Refn can cover a lack of purpose better than almost anyone. I was relearning a lesson in expectations. Turns out the movie I wanted from Only God Forgives probably wouldn't have been much better then what we wound up with. Eventually The Raid 2 found its footing and delivers a spellbinding final hour but by then I had already begun to question what I'd seen in Evans in the first place. Even if he and Uwais delivered one of the greatest martial arts sequences I've ever seen, did I want to support someone who so enjoyed the spectacle of a man callously cutting the throats of five men with a thin box cutter? I was having allegiance dissonance induced flashbacks to the day the trailer for Your Highness dropped. Before Your Highness David Gordon Green was a budding genius and arthouse staple with one daffy black mark on his resume, the stoner action film Pineapple Express. After a winning streak that had produced modern classics and worthwhile experiments George Washington, All The Real Girls, Undertow and Snow Angels, had Green cashed in all his chips and forgotten how to direct? Pineapple Express had its fair share of laughs but precious little of its raison-d'être (laidback charm, a few goofy unscripted moments) felt like Green. Then came Your Highness, a film most critics judge more harshly than the works of Leni Riefenstahl, which haphazardly fuses weed-soaked bro humour with the tropes of a sword-and-sorcery film. The results weren't pretty and in all but cinematography felt even further away from what I'd come to associate with the name David Gordon Green. When the ads for Green's The Sitter started playing multiplexes I can't have been alone in screaming "Game Over!" like Bill Paxton in Aliens. What in the good goddamn had happened? When Claire Denis experiments and the results are bilious headscratchers like Trouble Every Day and Bastards, those at least feel honest and of a piece with her other work. Green seemed to have traded his trademark rhythm and lustrous naturalism for a bigger house and though he may have believed in the three studio comedies he directed from 2008-2011 every bit as much as his early tragedies, they sent a distressing message to the little guys who wanted to make movies like George Washington. This is what artists have to do. Get used to it.
As Mark Kermode frequently points out, being disappointed in our artists comes from a place of love. The Sitter and Your Highness wouldn't seem quite so distressing if they hadn't come from someone who'd been hailed as the next Terrence Malick. Perhaps Green himself sensed that something wasn't right because in 2013 he premiered two different films, both set in Texas. Prince Avalanche contains a little of the boys-club antics of his time in Hollywood, but it's quite clear that Green was literally returning to his roots. Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch play a kind of forest fire clean-up crew, traveling and marking miles and miles of road and bickering all the way. But of course they slowly wear each other down and become friends, as the film too lets go of its earthly trappings and returns to nature. The film ends in the kind of spiritual montage that used to characterize Green's films, basking in the warm glow of the wilderness and its boundless empathy for human beings and their small, neverending worries. The film explodes into a flurry of fleeting, rhapsodic images of friendship, signaling the end of Green's flirtation with the wrong kind of callousness, and his reunion with the randomness of the human condition. That kind of awful logic he knows well. Joe hit film festivals what felt like a few weeks after Prince Avalanche, and the reviews confirmed what I had been hoping: It was a David Gordon Green film, as I wanted to understand that term.
Joe is my kind of movie. To call it old fashioned isn't quite right because Green's style is very much of the moment, but this is as close as we can get to Lolly Madonna XXX or The Winds of Autumn without resorting to grammatical anachronisms. Nicolas Cage, in one of his finest performances, even recalls perennial hillbilly character actor Ed Lauter at times. I can almost hear Roger Ebert saying that no good movies are depressing as we're introduced to our young hero and his abusive alcoholic dad, both of whom will have their lives changed by the angry Cage character who gives the movie its name and soul. Green's rhythm had returned, as had his utter clarity, his astounding imagery, his way of mixing the real and artificial, most perfectly embodied by the faces that haunt Joe, like the late Gary Poulter. Poulter, apparently a homeless man who'd never acted before, gives one of the greatest performances of this or any year. By all accounts Poulter was a man who'd lived every bit as much as his character and could find the man's unknowable soul and crack it wide open without ever letting us see him act. When Poulter hits his son, played by the great Tye Sheridan, it's as hard as any blow in The Raid 2 because his character should be wired to love his son but doesn't appear to love anything. Equally as mesmerizing are the men who work in Cage's tree-poisoning crew, especially his foreman who sounds like he could sing like Rufus Thomas or Otis Redding given the chance. And then there's Ronnie Gene Blevins who plays Cage's cowardly but terrifying nemesis Willie-Russell, giving my favourite performance in a movie filled with great ones. He looks like Richard Lynch in The Seven-Ups crossed with George A. Romero favourite Joe Pilato, and his performance is perfectly judged. Blevins is stupendous and belongs in the early 70s, breathing life into heavies the way Lynch, Bo Hopkins, Luke Askew, Joe Spinell, Warren Oates and Al Lettieri used to. And who knows? Maybe I'd have been denied these rare pleasures if I hadn't already subscribed to Green's narrative from chapter 1 and decided to finish the book no matter what. Gareth Evans is at a crossroads right now and his story could turn out any number of ways, I just hope he proves as great a talent as I think he is. It's in there somewhere, like it always was in Green, it's just up to him what he chooses to embrace.