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Rereleases are not usually fair game for Ten Best consideration, but we had to make an exception for Wake in Fright, a singularly grotesque 1971 melodrama by Canadian international director Ted Kotcheff. The story of John Grant, a solitary Australian Outback school teacher on vacation (English actor Gary Bond,) and his bizarre layover in the town of Bundanyabba would require several psychological and zoological textbooks to adequately describe, but can be summed up with two iron-clad caveats: Limit yourself to only two beers your first night in a strange town, and: Never trust a sheriff. Peripatetic filmmaker Kotcheff's termitic skill at delineating madness combined with oppressive dry heat helped make Wake in Fright a landmark in the annals of Ozploitation shockeroos alongside such epics as Razorback and Turkey Shoot. And now it's back. But be warned: If the sweaty close-ups of Donald Pleasance don't put you off your popcorn, the graphic depiction of a kangaroo hunt by a truckload of beer-sodden ockers surely will. The film enjoyed a week or two at Landmark houses in the fall, but if it were up to us, Wake in Fright would be on permanent rotation in the Midnight Show Hall of Fame.
Wuthering Heights and Killer Joe also received lengthy reviews during the past year. The former evidently struck some viewers as drastically dour, but for us, Andrea Arnold's rethinking of Emily Brontë's tragic romance illuminates dark corners, and updates that 1846 novel in unmistakable fashion for 21st-century audiences finally ready to put 19th-century racism and intolerance in a box and bury them forever. Director Arnold and writer Olivia Hetreed see fit to make their Heathcliff a newly freed slave stranded in the Yorkshire Moors through an ostensible act of kindness. It is Heathcliff's beloved Cathy, however, who wears the chains, shackled to her family's menfolk and her rich husband in turn. The setting is as chilly and forbidding, with just as many expressive emotional overtones, as Cary Fukunaga's sterling Jane Eyre adaptation last year. Although both films were first released in the UK in 2011, Wuthering took longer to reach us.
Killer Joe is the fourth pic to open this year to feature Matthew McConaughey, alongside Bernie, The Paperboy, and Magic Mike. The real stars of this thinking-person's drive-in programmer, however, are director William Friedkin and writer Tracy Letts, adapting his own stage play. Sex, violence, dirty talk, dirty deeds, drumstick sucking, and an homage to John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men all figure prominently in the story of a family of dolts hiring a crooked cop to murder an inconvenient relative. But Friedkin is having too much fun toying with his cast — McConaughey, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, Emile Hirsch, and Juno Temple as the catalytic agent Dottie — to spend time worrying about things like underage sex and full-frontal female nudity. That's why the audacious, whole-heartedly vulgar Killer Joe arrived in theaters with an NC-17 rating. Friedkin served it up raw, and we're still digesting it. A funky taste.
We spent the first ten minutes of Holy Motors hating it, until it dawned on us that just because writer-director Léos Carax jettisons most of the narrative niceties we use as a crutch, it doesn't necessarily follow that the tale of the enigmatic Monsieur Oscar (brilliantly conceived by actor Denis Lavant) has no meaning. André Breton once declared, in his novel Nadja: "Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all." That wily old Surrealist might find something to admire in the way M. Oscar, in a succession of outlandish personas, traverses the city of Paris, dropping in on an increasingly weird series of tableaux that culminate in him going home to his lover, an ape. Holy Motors is truly convulsive. It's also maddening, elusive, and nakedly joyous. What more could we ask from a movie? The filmmaker offers his thanks to Georges Franju and Henry James in the final credits. Remerciements are also due to actress Édith Scob, veteran of Franju's Eyes Without a Face and Judex, Luis Buñuel's The Milky Way, Raoúl Ruiz' Marcel Proust's Time Regained, and Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours, for her portrayal of M. Oscar's secretary Céline.
We're reviewing Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained in this issue's movie pages, so we'll merely reiterate that this delightfully salty neo-exploitation history lesson is Tarantino's finest since Jackie Brown, and an important milestone in the careers of both Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Now about "genre." What is it, how can we recognize it when we see it, and what does it mean to a film fan interested in digging a little deeper? From the early days of cinema more than a hundred years ago, when motion pictures progressed from a purely documentary form to a more narrative one, the term "genre" has referred to clearly defined narrative themes that have proved resilient enough to establish their own turfs. Horror/fantasy and Westerns are two of the earliest genres, and the former, at least, is still ubiquitous. Without getting too academic about it, a genre movie is one we can categorize quickly and describe in a short phrase: heist flick, young doctors in love, etc.