The Sisters Brothers

Stories that are based around a character or characters undertaking a long journey – often two people who are bound together by circumstance, or a sense of duty, or family ties, etc – are ten-a-penny in cinema, and especially so within the western genre. Such a time-worn set-up applies to Jacques Audiard’s latest, a revisionist oater in which antiheroes Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly on very good form) and his younger sibling Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) are employed as henchmen by a wealthy figure known as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer in a minor, non-speaking role). Charged with tracking down a gold prospector by the name of Hermann Kermit Warm, the two brothers bicker and endure – rather than enjoy – each other’s company, making their way from town to town, heading from Oregon into California. Along the way, the calmer, more contemplative Eli contemplates a change of direction in life, while the impetuous Charlie remains utterly wrapped up in the moment, largely incapable of seeing beyond the next saloon brawl; cinema conditioning dictates that we instantly expect them both to undergo some kind of change during their journey south.

If the outline sounds familiar, there are specific elements of the film that ensure it stands out from the litany of other works that combine the figurative inner journeys of characters with physically-demanding slogs across land, not least the ever-shifting tone and mood of the piece. These changes echo those of Patrick DeWitt’s source novel, a work that wrong-foots the reader by skipping between, say, brutal violence and sardonic humour, often in the space of the same paragraph. Very early on in the film it’s clear that the audience – like the brothers – is in for an uneasy ride: one minute you’re watching a shoot-out, the next a gruesome slice of body horror, then lighter, knockabout comedy (with Phoenix even offering touches of slapstick), and finally, in its most intriguing state, The Sisters Brothers morphs into a meditative, almost dreamlike study of the ties that bind.

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly in The Sisters Brothers

In addition, there is a lot of elliptical storytelling (a device that all-too-often sounds the death knell in terms of a movie’s box office performance, and perhaps contributed to this film’s status as a financial flop). The plot is never unduly complicated and the story is always easy to follow, but occasionally the viewer is required to do a little work and fill in the gaps. For example, some gunfights involving the brothers end abruptly, mid-shootout, and Audiard might cut to a scene showing the pair farther on down the line, where more conventional films would clearly establish that every adversary has been downed before doing so. A grizzly bear attack – something that became the most memorable moment in The Revenant – is dealt with in a similar fashion, with one of the characters simply waking from a deep slumber to find a defeated, dead bear slumped in the camp; we don’t see any of the struggle that ensued, or get to experience any of the tension that would undoubtedly have been caused by the animal’s appearance.

That’s not to say Audiard’s film is light on excitement or action, but it’s very much a secondary concern, any near-death experiences being business-as-usual for these experienced hired killers. The director is far more interested in the changing relationships between Eli and Charlie and, in a subplot that eventually merges with the main strand, the tentatively homoerotic union between Riz Ahmed’s Warm and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Morris, the latter another of The Commodore’s hired guns (and one whose highfalutin ways constantly anger Charlie Sisters).

Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed

At its best the film recalls the woozy, spiritual style of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, and there were enough of these passages to leave me thinking that The Sisters Brothers will be very warmly regarded as time passes, perhaps one day seen as a cult concern (if indeed it isn’t already; such things seem to be enshrined pretty quickly in the 21st century). The pared-down score by celebrated composer Alexandre Desplat certainly enhances the overall sense of oddness, sounding like a choppy, jerky reworking of something that might have begun life as a ‘classic’ western theme. Benoît Debie’s impressive digital cinematography, meanwhile, features some crisp interior low-light work and stunning landscape photography, even if Audiard seems wholly uninterested in lingering over the beautiful mountain vistas and plains for too long; an American director or cinematographer might have been more tempted to romanticise the land and slot in with the history of the genre by shooting on film and leaving certain views up on the screen for a few extra seconds. The Frenchman and his Belgian DoP seem less interested in such convention.

With all that in mind, as well as the generally poor box office showings of other modern westerns, it’s hardly a surprise that this failed to find a large audience upon release, but as long as you’re not the one taking the financial hit or hoping for a long and successful career in Hollywood (as Audiard may have been) that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As The Sisters Brothers peters out with a gently reverberating coda – eschewing an obvious stopping point or uplifting ending – it becomes clear that this is one that has been made for the few, rather than the many. It also strikes me that Reilly, had he been acting in another era, would have played dozens of roles in the western genre. (****)

0233 | Inherent Vice

The complicated, labyrinthine plot of Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh feature film, coupled with the muffled delivery of some of its actors, is proving a little too much for some cinemagoers: newspapers in the UK, at least, have reported that audience members are ducking out before the end of the movie and it’s certainly not difficult to understand why some people – perhaps frustrated at being made to feel obtuse by the story – are doing so. This adaptation, like Thomas Pynchon’s original novel, is wilfully difficult – though not impossible – to follow: set in LA at the turn of the 1970s, there’s a wealth of information to take in (characters both seen and unseen, threads, places, anecdotes, crossed lines, coincidences, life, death, jellyfish croquettes) and much of it is casually picked up, dropped and subsequently forgotten about; only at the end is it really possible to take stock and figure out what has, and what hasn’t, been particularly relevant in this shaggiest of shaggy dog stories. Plenty of people dislike being left behind by fast-moving or barely-understandable plots and their criticisms are entirely valid, despite the sneering ‘oh-you-just-don’t-get-it’ tone of several prominent media voices; while it seems that you need to be able to sit back, relax and go with the film to enjoy it, not everyone finds that easy to do in practice, and it’s a shame that Anderson’s latest is prompting strong enough feelings in some to cause walkouts after paying for a seat.

Those able to accept Inherent Vice for what it is – a deliberately convoluted and confusing semi-comic neo-noir filtered through a fuzzy, druggy haze – will likely have a good time. Anderson has made a visually-arresting film that fuses elements of The Big SleepThe Big LebowskiThe Maltese FalconKiss Kiss Bang BangThe Long GoodbyeNight Moves (the 1975 film) and Chinatown, among others, though whether it’s actually the equal of any of those titles is a moot point. It is, however, better than Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, from which Joaquin Phoenix cribs a number of Johnny Depp’s spaced-out Thompsonisms for his portrayal of private eye Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello.

The Long Goodbye, in which Robert Altman took an early 1950s Chandler / Marlowe story and set it twenty years later, is probably the nearest comparable film; Altman has long been Anderson’s most obvious influence, and the younger director even acted as a standby for the veteran before he passed away, during the filming of A Prairie Home Companion. You could say that Inherent Vice is Anderson’s most overtly Altman-esque film since Magnolia, and it represents a return to the earlier LA-based, ensemble-featuring work of his career; in fact it’s a surprise that a hysterical Luis Guzmán is absent from the cast.

Joaquin Phoenix is firmly on the way to becoming an Anderson regular himself, and he’s enjoyable to watch as the dope-smoking hippy PI, a resident of the fictional suburb of Gordita Beach. Sportello is visited by ex-girlfriend (or ‘ex-old’ in the parlance of the times) Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who asks her former beau to investigate an imminent kidnapping plot involving her current lover, real estate magnate Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts); Wolfmann and Hepworth both subsequently disappear. Two other people – Michael K. Williams’ Black Guerrilla Family member Tariq Khalil and Jena Malone’s ex-junkie Hope Harlingen – independently come to Doc at the same time asking for help with, as it transpires, their own coincidentally-related cases. This sets the wheels of the often baffling plot in motion, embracing such creations along the way as Josh Brolin’s hippy-hating detective ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen, Owen Wilson’s musician-turned-stool pigeon Coy Harlingen, Reese Witherspoon’s Deputy DA (and Doc’s ‘new-old’) Penny Kimball, Hong Chau’s helpful prostitute Jade and many, many more. Following their often-cryptic guidance, Doc ambles into an expanding world of cults, bikers, shadowy crime syndicates and dentists, completely lost in his own story, wandering from one scenario and person to the next without much of a clue as to what is happening.

Like Pynchon’s book, Anderson’s film successfully mines the confusing nature of the plot, and the bafflement of the stoned protagonist, for laughs. The likeable Doc’s tendency to make vague notes during his investigations becomes a running joke, for example, with hastily-scribbled entries like ‘Not hallucinating!’ and ‘something Spanish’ offering little in the way of illumination for detective or audience. He regularly appears wandering about in dense fog or sitting in / under a cloud of smoke, and his lack of familiarity with certain surroundings often leaves him sporting an amusingly-perplexed look, desperate for a point of reference. Sportello’s confusion is roughly equal to our own, although tragically for Doc he can’t walk out of the story or out of the cinema in frustration, and those of us in the audience must face the usual frustrations found when looking to stoners for coherence.

In the film the ideas of sudden displacement, or of being lost, are enhanced by the changing landscape of LA, with the appearance of new property developments further messing with Doc’s drug-addled mind. In one sequence Anderson shows a flashback of Doc and Shasta as they attempt to score some weed before Doc, back in the present, visits the same site while following a clue. He finds a new, turd-shaped development where previously there was nothing and examines it as if he has just spotted a silver unicorn in an Adidas tracksuit settling down with a hookah. The physical make-up of Doc’s town is altering, and it’s seemingly hard for him to handle, but that’s not the only change taking place in the City of Angels: the prevalence of the hippie lifestyle he clings to is slowly being replaced by a new wave of self-interest and commercial focus as the Nixon era begins in earnest. Coke is taking over from weed and acid as the drug-du-jour, and the Hell’s Angels and the Manson Family have become the dominant cultural references, in stark contrast to the positivity associated with the Summer of Love and Woodstock. There’s even a brief tableau vivant in which Wilson (front and centre in the Jesus position) and various cult-y musicians and hangers-on align at a table for what appears to be their own Last Supper, which is fun but ultimately an example of PTA ramming the point home with unnecessary force. Doc’s people are still visible, still existing, but they’re losing the short battle with conservative, capitalist America and its authoritative powers, a motif typified by the detective’s recurring and often painful run-ins with straight-laced cops like Bjornsen and FBI agents Borderline (Timothy Simons) and Flatweed (Sam Jaeger).

Still, all the best PIs operate with the police at arm’s length, and for all his fall-guy fuzziness Pynchon’s creation is no dipshit; he may be shambling but he regularly gets the better of those who underestimate him, including the authorities, though Anderson smartly leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether it’s primarily due to luck or intelligence. Like his equally-stoned anti-hero counterpart in The Big Lebowski, things just seem to work out for Doc eventually, but one of the delights of watching the film comes from seeing  the brief ‘eureka!’ moments in which Phoenix’s character suddenly pieces together a small part of the impossible jigsaw, even though the actual puzzle seems to get bigger and bigger as the story progresses. Also, like The Dude, he’s a well-intentioned, relatively peaceful guy who would probably rather be at home smoking a joint than negotiating his way through a world populated by psychopaths; it’s impossible not to root for Doc given this underdog scenario, but Phoenix’s charm makes doubly sure that the audience is on the main character’s side.

As per Pynchon’s novel it’s a shame that several of the superbly-monikered friends and foes Doc knows or meets along the way are sidelined so quickly. Williams, Witherspoon and Malone do not receive much screen time after their initial introductions, while Benecio del Toro (playing lawyer Sauncho Smilax, Esq, another riff on Fear And Loathing) and Maya Rudolph (Anderson’s partner, playing Doc’s receptionist Petunia) suffer a similar fate, even though the sacrifice of characters and the introduction of more faces is somewhat necessary to ensure the complicated nature of the plot. I do wonder whether it would have been better to use a few unknown or less-familiar actors in some of these smaller roles; none of the big names mentioned above actually enhance the picture in any meaningful way, as only Brolin, Phoenix and Waterston are around long enough to show off their chops. Two of the more interesting comic performances – Martin Short’s drugged-up dentist Rudy Blatnoyd and Martin Donovan’s shady businessman Crocker Fenway – leave lasting impressions despite their brevity, but that’s due to some extreme scenery-chewing. At least the revolving door approach allows for a large number of lowlifes, crazies, tycoons and femme fatales to pass through Doc’s world, something of a prerequisite for any work that aims to echo the fast-paced investigations of Spade and Marlowe.

Anderson’s greatest success – given that any praise for the characters and dialogue should really be directed towards Pynchon – is in overseeing the film’s visual style. Inherent Vice is beautiful to look at, with lush, rich colours enhanced by the meticulous work of the lighting crew and captured thanks to Anderson’s choice of shots and the technical prowess of his regular DoP Robert Elswit. The denim blues are deep, the greens and reds vibrant, while the sunny yellows are evocative of a carefree Laurel Canyon where singer-songwriters could be found on every street corner and residents floated on down to Sunset Boulevard. The movie was shot on 35mm film, further recalling the ‘feel’ of the period, and Anderson’s commitment to the medium in the face of the digital takeover is commendable given the results he has achieved. Inherent Vice even received its UK premiere at London’s Prince Charles Cinema, a gem of a venue that remains dedicated to showing 35mm prints, and one normally playing second fiddle to the domineering big chain neighbours of Leicester Square.

Though I prefer most of Anderson’s previous work, including his last two films, it’s something of a relief that the director has served up some lighter fayre after the double whammy of There Will Be Blood and The Master. Inherent Vice feels more in step with his earlier LA-based movies, but those hints in the Anderson-cut trailer that suggested a re-tooling of the first half of Boogie Nights or even the Coen’s Lebowski are wide of the mark. The film is dialogue-heavy, the scenes are generally long, the tone is different to anything he has done before and you’ll probably smirk more than laugh.

Anderson’s still more interested in making films that concentrate on men, first and foremost, and although this is an adaptation of an existing novel it’s a shame to see the female characters (and therefore female actors) generally get short shrift yet again. After writing interesting parts for Amy Adams and Emily Watson in recent years it’s disappointing that this story represents a step back in the wrong direction with its one-dimensional nympho maid and sex-mad, skimpy-clad receptionists. The preference for women prancing around wearing cut-offs, hot pants, bikinis or underwear is arguably more understandable – given the setting – than in many other exploitative films, but there’s certainly a predictable, predominant ‘Hollywood starlet’ look here, and I long for a duck walk or a pot belly or a lazy eye or even a fleeting glimpse of the kind of people who actually populate a large portion of this world. Michelle Sinclair, better known as the pornstar Belladonna, pops up in one scene, and her character’s sum total contribution is to announce that she likes having threesomes before disappearing forever. (PTA’s obsession with the porn industry, widely attributed to be a by-product of his upbringing in the Valley, continues unabated; not that I think pornstars are lepers who shouldn’t be let anywhere near ‘serious’ movie sets, or anything, it’s just…did you really need to cast a pornstar in that role?) I guess the fact that Jena Malone’s character has false teeth represents something of a triumph for all aspiring actresses that don’t fit into some kind of Hollywood casting agent’s narrow field. Don’t despair sisters! Keep the dream alive! There’s the eternal hope of a tiny, tiny part in a future Paul Thomas Anderson movie! As long as your legs are good enough, of course.

Just as troubling is the treatment of Shasta, the most prominent female character, who is even ‘punished’ by Doc with sex (although in defence of Pynchon and Anderson it is something that she instigates and wants). She’s introduced in a meekly deferential way when she re-visits her old male lover in order to ask for help, and her key scene, walking with Doc along the beach, sees her equating herself with damaged goods from a cargo ship; she is apparently the ‘inherent vice’ of the title, a walking symbol of the deterioration that the story is concerned with. Even the most likeable male character here can’t be bothered to disagree with her or attempt to raise her self-esteem.

I find Pynchon’s work a bit of a struggle to get through, which no-one ever admits, but ultimately it’s worth the effort. The same applies to Anderson’s latest: I enjoy his films a lot, and I enjoyed this one a lot, but a certain amount of steely resilience is required and I imagine a native American ear for the speedy dialogue and internationally-obscure cultural references would probably help, too; either that or you need to match Doc joint-for-joint. So: those who like their plots and their actors crystal clear are obviously best advised to give it a miss, but if you’re still up for it you’ll find a flawed-but-entertainingly absurd piece that slots nicely into the director’s career and looks fantastic. It’s kinda fun to be all-at-sea with Doc and Inherent Vice is a trip; ultimately how can you resist a film with character names like ‘Japonica Fenway’, ‘Buddy Tubeside’, ‘Riggs Warbling’ and ‘Puck Beaverton’?

The Basics:
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson, Thomas Pynchon
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Benecio Del Toro, Hong Chau, Joanna Newsom, Jena Malone
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 148 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 8.2

0158 | The Master

Though Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master shares much thematic and stylistic common ground with all of his earlier films, which I consider to be uniformly excellent, its closest companion is 2007’s brooding and restless There Will Be Blood. Both movies contain protagonists associated with religion who are drawn as coldly-calculating manipulators and charlatans, and both focus on flawed men who seem to be completely at odds with the rapidly-changing society that surrounds them, unable to engage in successful, unconditional relationships with pretty much anyone else they know.

There are other commonalities, of course, such as Jonny Greenwood’s jarring scores and the strength of the acting. Additionally, both films are grand in scale and seem to play out under an invisible but omnipresent dark cloud; they are heavy works, with little let-up, and each has an ominous tone that is at odds with many other films covering similar periods in American history. There Will Be Blood contained none of the rabid excitement or get-rich-quick triumphalism found in other films covering the oil boom, such as In Old Oklahoma or Boom Town (it does, admittedly, share some similarities with the bleak 1956 James Dean film Giant, even though the earlier film is more concerned with racism), and it painted a rather disconcerting picture of the early stages of 20th Century capitalism. Similarly The Master rejects (or questions) the notion that post-war America in the late 1940s was filled with optimism and a blanket desire to embrace the future, with Joaquin Phoenix’s destructive drifter Freddie Quell unable to settle after returning home from military service.

Quell is a complex, unorthodox man. All of Anderson’s films to date include at least one character that fits such a description, but both he and There Will Be Blood‘s Daniel Plainview in particular have a dark, troubling, self-destructive violent streak, they are both stubborn to the point that it makes them dangerous, and both are seemingly incapable of finding any kind of inner peace or happiness. A Rorschach test administered by his superiors in the Navy reveals that Quell has long-standing issues regarding sex, and this is further seized upon by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a philosophical movement called The Cause, who concentrates on Freddie’s pre-war relationship with a young woman named Doris (Madisen Beaty) during another psychological test. Freddie seems to be obsessed with sex; he is also violent, awkward around other people and unimaginative. None of the testing he is subjected to appears to diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder, but he has clearly been affected by the war. (Though Anderson was (understandably) at pains to point out his film was not specifically about either L. Ron Hubbard or Scientology when it was first released, but did admit that they influenced his story. The similarities are there for everyone to see, and the director’s research into Dianetics and Hubbard’s life presumably means there’s an authenticity to many scenes.)

Quell meets Dodd after spending some time drifting from one job to another and from one place to the next. He returns home to find employment as a photographer in a mall at first, but leaves after needlessly getting into a fight with a customer. A heavy drinker, his home-made potent brew later poisons a fellow picker on a cabbage farm and he is chased off by the other itinerant workers (this is shown with a stunning steadicam shot, the camera staying parallel to Phoenix as he sprints through the field). Homeless, he opportunistically boards Dodd’s boat during a party, but is soon welcomed into the fold by the leader and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams completing a trio of actors that was, in 2012, arguably one of the best you could hope to put together). The shrewd Dodd develops a taste for Freddie’s liquor, but is equally fascinated by the man’s violent streak, and quickly brings him into his inner circle, aware that this may be of value.

There is much paranoia and mistrust in the story that follows. Other members of The Cause become concerned about Freddie’s propensity for violence and his fondness for boozing, and eventually they suggest that he is either insane, or an undercover agent, or both. Dodd sticks up for Freddie, and the strong-willed Peggy tries to impose a tee-total regime on both men, fearing alcohol will ruin the work she and her husband have put in to the movement. As the group tries to spread the message of The Cause across the east coast, Freddie’s relationship with Lancaster begins to change when Dodd’s son Val (Jesse Plemons) tells Freddie his father is making it all up as he goes along; eventually Freddie just drifts away, a rudderless ship in search of another port, and even a later conciliation with Dodd will not bring him back for good. Freddie is no Cause convert, he’s simply happy to feel wanted and to have a temporary family. The war veteran seems outwardly keen to learn from Dodd at first, and exhibits signs that he wishes to change his ways and prove his commitment to The Master, but by the end of the film he has ultimately remained the same kind of person as before (signified by the similar opening and closing scenes of him cuddling up to a female body made of sand on a beach).

While that may not sound particularly interesting, The Master is an engrossing tale, largely due to the strength of its principal characters and the acting performances behind them. Hoffman, Phoenix and Adams all received Oscar nominations for their work portraying unlikeable characters here, and although none of them actually managed to win an Academy Award for this film, they are all very good indeed. Phoenix in particular stands out; despite the rave reviews, nominations and awards he has received in the past for his work in GladiatorHer and Walk The Line, this is far and away his finest performance to date for me, conveying perfectly Freddie’s cognitive dissonance and inability to comfortably slot into post-war society.

Anderson opts for a slow, unrushed pace, again similar to that of There Will Be Blood. Some feel the film is pedestrian as a result, but the lack of action allows for sustained focus on the actors, their characters and the way in which they interact with each other. It also seems to add tension to proceedings, and is fundamental in creating the brooding, contemplative tone.

The Master is subtle in its criticism of The Cause, or rather it is subtle in its criticism of real-life bodies of belief and practices that are similar to The Cause. Anderson is mainly interested in examining the personality of a man who would lead such an organization, and seems less inclined as a result to focus on the kind of person that gets suckered in. Dodd’s trip down the east coast sees him enlighten or convert dozens of people – mainly upper class socialites with enough spare time to become mildly-interested, and bored housewives on the cusp of1950s change – but they are all nameless extras aside from Laura Dern, who is underused as Helen Sullivan, a Cause supporter. We do get some insight into the organization and its practices via the filmmaker’s examination of the Dodds, of course, but not much. The film’s focus is on the relationship between surrogate father Dodd and Quell, and it never strays too far away from this.

Mainly shot on 65mm film, which was later cropped to keep a consistent aspect ratio with scenes shot on 35mm, The Master still looks sumptuous on the TV screen. Anderson worked with Francis Ford Coppola’s favoured cinematographer of recent years, Mihai Malaimare Jr., which makes this the first time he has not collaborated with regular DoP Robert Elswit (due to scheduling reasons). Elswit has returned for the forthcoming Inherent Vice, but Malaimare’s work here is excellent; the movie’s opening shot of a boat’s wake sets the bar high and there are many visual treats in the hours that follow, particularly with regard to close-ups.

If anything, it’s a shame the film isn’t longer. It’s disappointing that Freddie’s life between 1945 and 1950 is reduced to a few scenes covering just two jobs, but this short period in the movie at least allows for the early(ish) introduction of the other main characters and it is actually very powerful as it stands, empty of cliche. If it feels like a frustratingly non-committal work at times that’s probably due to Anderson’s reticence in terms of damning the principal characters or allowing them to change in any meaningful way; they are easily judged, as they have clear flaws and psychological problems, but the director is at times more than sympathetic towards them. This is surprising to say the least, given the general animosity felt towards such cultish spiritual groups in modern times.

Rather than an examination of Scientology or any other cult, The Master is primarily a moody and thoughtful character study with an occasional violent bite. It contains a superb performance by Phoenix, two very good ones by Adams and the sadly-departed Hoffman, and Anderson continues to produce excellent work.

The Basics:
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams 
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 138 minutes
Year: 2012
Rating: 9.1

0130 | Her

Every now and again a science fiction film comes along that successfully manages to tap in to the spirit of the time, the zeitgeist, and though these movies are often set in the future they normally illuminate the way in which we are living today. Her, the new high-concept film by the remarkably offbeat and creative director Spike Jonze, is one such work: it offers a largely plausible futuristic version of Los Angeles in 2025 in which reliance on technology has increased human loneliness and the expression of one’s feelings toward spouses, relatives and close friends is fast becoming a dying art. Anyone who regularly uses public transport in western urban environments will be aware of the hold that smartphones, laptops and tablets currently have over their owners, and Jonze runs with this idea, highlighting the fact that man’s recent technological advances in the field of global communications have in fact led to a decline in our desire and ability to actually communicate face-to-face with each other.

Jonze co-wrote the adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s book Where The Wild Things Are with Dave Eggers, but Her is his first solo screenplay (his earlier successes, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, were both written by Charlie Kaufman). It concerns a withdrawn, slightly nerdy and emotionally-bruised man named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who is employed by a company called Beautifulhandwrittenletters.com. Theodore’s job, unsurprisingly, is to craft beautiful handwritten letters for people who feel that they are unable to express their true feelings toward their loved ones, the irony being that his own personal life is in a bit of a mess; Theodore is in the middle of divorce proceedings following the breakdown of his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara) and is reliant on phone sex and pictures of celebrities for thrills, although he has remained friends with ex-girlfriend Amy (Amy Adams, excellent yet again).

The lonely Theodore sees an advert for a new operating system which purports to be the world’s first OS with artificial intelligence, and his interest is piqued enough to make an impulse buy. It’s interesting to note that this advert, which features a number of confused people disconnected from (and walking blindly into) each other, is echoed later on in the film as Theodore wanders the walkways connecting LA’s stations and buildings. The majority of his fellow Angelenos now seem to own this new OS, and the ‘real life’ crowd Theodore walks through resembles the zombified actors of the advert, their obsession with the OS almost rendering them oblivious to the presence of other people. Upon installation of the system he is asked a series of questions – in an amusing scene is repeatedly and brutally cut off mid-answer – and after choosing the ‘female voice’ option he is introduced to ‘Samantha’ (Scarlett Johansson). (It’s interesting that the question of gender is seemingly an unimportant one – Theodore only gives it a moment’s consideration – but it has an important effect on his life thereafter.)

Samantha is able to converse with Theodore as well as organize his emails and arrange social engagements. She is even able to wake him up in the middle of the night when she wants a chat. Gradually Theodore falls in love with Samantha, and the feeling is – according to the system, which is evolving and learning at a fast pace – mutual. And thus, in a world where the stigma attached to virtual relationships has apparently almost disappeared, a strange 21st Century computer love story blossoms: Theodore is occasionally reticent, but otherwise publicly admits his love for Samantha, and is only judged negatively – understandably – by Catherine.

The meat of Jonze’s film deals with the relationship between Theodore and Samantha, which progresses in a relatively straightforward – at times clichéd – way: at first they are smitten, and the honeymoon period includes public displays of affection as Theodore spins around joyfully through the sleek, sanitised and sun-drenched city with his smartphone held at arm’s length. Samantha even tries to experience sex with Theodore via a proxy (Portia Doubleday), which goes as well as you’d expect it to. Then there’s a brief jealousy stage, in which Theodore is introduced to another OS Samantha has befriended, which is based by programmers on the philosopher and writer Alan Watts (voiced by Brian Cox). (Incidentally, echoing Where The Wild Things Are, Jonze uses the voices of quite a few well-known actors in Her. As well as Johansson and Cox, the voices of French singer Soko, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig all appear in the film, as well as some voice acting by Jonze himself – credited under his real name Adam Spiegel. Wiig’s brief scene as a phone sex partner with a cat fetish is one of the film’s funniest.) Finally – and without wanting to give too much away – there is the messy ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ break-up, in which one partner ‘outgrows’ (i.e. ‘gets bored of’) the other.

Jonze blends together this mixture of romance, science fiction and humour superbly, applying the offbeat tone of his earlier films to Theodore’s world. Beautifulhandwrittenletters.com is essentially an ultra-modern, sleeker and less-zany version of Being John Malkovich‘s LesterCorp: a strange, unreal place to spend one’s working days, and crucial in terms of setting the overall mood of the movie. Theodore’s video game-fuelled life at home is equally odd, and there are laughs provided by the futuristic versions of today’s interactive gaming experiences. Indeed the way in which Jonze has modified technology for the purposes of his film is largely believable – we could easily be using phones and monitors like Theodore’s that are retro in design in ten years’ time, and no doubt our lives will continue to be ‘managed’ via objects that are already essentially small computers rather than mere phones. Additionally, the current trend for linking social media, gaming consoles and various other home entertainment systems and hard drives means that the minimal, book- and CD-free apartments of Amy and Theodore are an entirely likely norm of the future;. 

The design throughout is interesting, with Jonze suggesting that the future will bring so many skyscrapers (in Los Angeles at least) that it will be nigh on impossible to identify any differences between them. Similarly, the way people dress in this cafe latte utopia is uniform and bland, with unpatterned, high-trousered casual wear the order of the day; there’s seemingly no place for goths, punks, suits or any other distinctive type you may care to mention in Jonze’s 2025. This LA is clean, safe, and somewhat depressing to consider: it looks like the kind of wet dream enjoyed nightly by the advertising brains of GAP, Apple, Google and Starbucks, a threat-free hipster techno playground where the only jobs that remain are in the creative industries. It may as well be re-named DavidKarpville, JonathanIveland or Zuckerberg-on-sea.

Looking at this world – which, I say again, resembles our own enough to make it believable – it’s little wonder that Theodore, and presumably many other citizens, finds happiness by withdrawing into a more personal space. There is little to engage the mind aside from phones, games and computers; the overriding feature of this city is its blandness, and contemplating it makes me wonder whether the large number of adverts that have taken over our public spaces today is such a bad thing after all (if this is the alternative, anyway). Interestingly, we do get to see a lot of this city, but very few interiors; aside from a couple of apartments, a station and an office there’s just one scene set inside a restaurant, if memory serves, and that is a tellingly minimal, boring room.

Jonze has taken those quirky technology stories of recent years we often hear about or read – people falling in love with video game characters or forming entire relationships with complete strangers through online role-playing games like Second Life – and taken them to a kinda/sorta logical next level. Phoenix gets his performance just about right, and as a result it’s possible to find this unusual relationship plausible. His Theodore is a peaceful, likeable-but-timid man, a nervy introvert who has much in common with Jonze’s previous main characters, and his need to feel loved is considerable. His openness to a relationship with an operating system is understandable given the emotional shock caused by his separation from Catherine, and it is echoed by Amy’s parallel relationship with her (female) OS following her own split from husband Charles (Matt Letscher).

The film isn’t perfect, and some very unsubtle imagery is included at times, particularly when the relationship starts to fall apart – when Theodore and Samantha go on holiday and stay in a cabin in the mountains, for example, Jonze includes shots of icicles thawing, which feels a little clunky. Additionally the logical conclusion of the relationship at the heart of the film is so obvious it seems to take forever to actually arrive, although I will say that the idea of technology outgrowing the human race, and subsequently ditching it before going who knows where, is superb. (I’d never considered this before, but isn’t it more logical than (and just as brutal as) the machine-led attacks and slavery of the Terminator / Matrix worlds?) It’s ruthless and you could say it’s cold-hearted, but how can it be if there’s no heart involved?

Finally, this isn’t necessarily a criticism, but the decision to cast and record Scarlett Johansson as the voice of Samantha instead of the original on-set actor Samantha Morton is an interesting one. This move apparently received Morton’s blessing, and while Johansson’s voice is certainly sexy in a conventional, sultry way, it is also easily recognisable, and so surely everyone who goes to see this film will picture Johansson’s face and/or body while watching it. I would love to see a version with Morton as Samantha – or any version where the actor’s voice is not so recognisable – just purely out of interest.

These are minor quibbles and observations though. Despite one or two predictable moments – most notably the ending – Her is an enjoyable, thought-provoking film, and it is filled with invention. It may focus on one single relationship with technology, but really it is about the relationship the human race has as a whole with our increasingly hi-tech games, communication devices and systems. Shot with the same, sun-dappled sheen as Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, it is a rewarding visual experience and it includes some fine acting, both on and off screen. Her cements Jonze’s reputation as one of the most original talents working in Hollywood today.

The Basics:

Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 126 minutes
Year: 2013
Rating: 9.0