Movie Review: “The New Mutants”

At long last, “The New Mutants” has hit theaters. Originally scheduled for release in early 2018, the movie was delayed repeatedly during Disney’s acquisition of the 20th Century Fox film studio, which owned the X-Men stable of characters. And now, finally, it’s been unceremoniously released during the throes of COVIDtide as a sort of trial balloon for the theater industry.

But surprise of surprises—it’s actually good!

Following the sudden death of her father and tribe, young Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt) finds herself in a tightly controlled facility for juvenile mutants with unknown or uncontrolled powers, overseen by the enigmatic Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga). She quickly meets the four other residents of the institution: coal miner’s son Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), wealthy Brazilian heir Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga), Scottish girl Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams, last seen as Arya in “Game of Thrones”), and vindictive Russian killer Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Unsurprisingly, it turns out that Dr. Reyes has some ulterior motives, forcing the five New Mutants to make a play for freedom.

Plot points like these may sound familiar, but “The New Mutants” is a very different sort of X-Men movie than its predecessors. Most importantly, the movie spends more time on character development across-the-board than almost any other superhero tale since Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy. Each of the five New Mutants has killed someone close to them, and the audience walks beside them as they struggle to work through their grief and guilt in different ways. (On that note, these characters’ backstories, in particular Illyana’s, are some of the grimmest I can recall in superhero fandom. Despite the PG-13 rating, don’t take kids.)

Given the film’s introspective tenor, “The New Mutants” doesn’t prioritize big-budget action sequences. There’s certainly a great showdown at the end, but at bottom this is a film that draws most of its power from setting, mood, and internal struggle. (Lest you worry that this sounds like the shoegazy ennui of Josh Trank’s “Fant4stic,” I assure you it is far superior to that debacle.)

No doubt “The New Mutants” will be a polarizing, even off-putting, film for those viewers longing for “Avengers”-style mayhem. But I think this is a film that has rather more on its mind—at least implicitly—than many critics or audiences will give it credit for. For one thing, perhaps the most distinctive thematic undercurrent in “The New Mutants” is its engagement with what one might call the goodness of embodiedness.

About halfway through the film, Dani wistfully recounts a bit of Indigenous folklore speculating that the soul only finds true peace when liberated from its bodily shackles. And Dani is willing to act on that belief: shortly after arriving at the facility, Dani climbs to the top of a clock tower and prepares to kill herself—an action that would seem to, on Dani’s reasoning, instantly free her from the material world and reunite her with her lost father. But in that moment of decision, the one who stops her is Rahne—who, fascinatingly, remains a devout Catholic despite the fact that her trauma came at the hands of a priest. (For what it’s worth, “The New Mutants” may have the most explicit engagement with religion of any superhero film in recent memory.)

The anthropological vision that subsequently plays out onscreen has far more in common with Rahne’s Catholicism than Dani’s mysticism.Specifically, the movie is not simply a story of the New Mutants coming to terms with their psychological trauma, but also with their very existence as enfleshed beings with strange giftings.

For the most part, the powers wielded by the New Mutants are profoundly embodied superhero powers: Sam launches his own body with concussive force, Illyana girds herself in mystical armor, Roberto ignites himself, and so on. There’s no mind control or manipulation of cosmic forces: the powers on display here emerge from within, and profoundly affect, their users’ physical flesh. What unfolds onscreen is indeed “mutation” in the fullest, most painful sense.

And the ultimate resolution of the film demands that the New Mutants accept these traits as intimately bound up with their identities: indeed, the final chaos only stops once Dani—whose power is more “supernatural” than the others’, although still more tangible than, say, Professor Xavier’s telepathy—finally confronts what she is capable of unleashing, and does so in a spirit of acceptance. Genuine redemption, in short, is not found in escape from embodiedness, but from understanding its nature and limits.

The relationship between bodies and identities strikes me as an infinitely rich topic, but one that doesn’t usually come into view in superhero flicks. In opening up the space to ask that question, “The New Mutants” truly sets itself apart from its peers.

Is it worth making the trek out to see? I’d say absolutely yes—this is pretty close to the superhero movie I’d make if someone in Hollywood cut me a check. Those expecting generic popcorn fare may leave disappointed, but anyone willing to think a little more deeply about what they’re watching will wonder why this film took so long to hit the screens. More like this, please.

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Posted by on August 29, 2020 in Sci-Fi


Movie Review: “Unhinged”

One of the very last movies I saw before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down movie theaters was “The Hunt.” Originally scheduled for release last summer, “The Hunt” was yanked from the calendar after allegations that the film (an update of the classic story “The Most Dangerous Game”) glorified progressives massacring red-state Americans in a secluded compound. This brouhaha, it turns out, was a rather awkward case of missing the point. The film ended up depicting spiteful elite progressives kidnapping red-state Americans after being implicated in a fringe conspiracy theory—and ironically, in so doing, vindicating that theory. Imagine a kind of meta-QAnon story as a horror film, and you’ll get the picture.

Accordingly, probably the most honest reading of “The Hunt” is that it’s a conservative-leaning story: one that manages to be self-critical about some propensities on the right to engage in conspiracist thinking, but one that ultimately turns around and that argues that a fundamental cynicism about elites is entirely justified. “Unhinged,” for its part, goes in almost exactly the opposite direction.

In the opening minutes of the film, an overweight, hydrocodone-popping Russell Crowe (credited only as “The Man”) breaks into a home in a glitzy subdivision and kills the occupants with a fire axe. Following a brief altercation at a traffic light the next day, The Man becomes a seething avatar of pure road rage, chasing after single mom Rachel (Caren Pistorius) and her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman), as well as everyone else in their lives.

That’s pretty much it—once the groundwork’s laid, director Derrick Borte leans hard into the propulsive momentum of his film, upping the stakes further and further with each passing minute. Though marketed as a “thriller,” “Unhinged” is better described as a full-on horror flick: there’s plenty of brutal and bloody hand-to-hand fighting to go along with the vehicular carnage. For what it’s worth, if slasher films are your thing, this is a pretty good one—but those seeking something more date night-friendly may want to sit this one out.

What’s notable about “Unhinged” isn’t its script, acting, or camera work (which are all serviceable enough, if unexceptional). Rather, what stands out most about the movie is the fact that the fears that it taps into are the precise flip side, politically speaking, of those powering “The Hunt.”

Through isolated snippets of exposition, we learn that The Man dropped out of school, was cheated on by his wife, was subsequently drained by divorce lawyers, and was fired from his manual-labor job just before his pension vested. Accordingly, calling the film a depiction of “toxic masculinity,” as some critics have, is too facile: rather, the villain in “Unhinged” is an incarnation of every terrifying stereotype of the blue-collar right held by ardent readers of the “New York Times.” Obesity? Check. Low educational level? Check. Opioids? Check. Giant pickup truck? Check. (In the encounter that initially triggers his rage against Rachel, The Man denounces the demise of a previous culture where people had respect for each other and apologized for things.)

If “The Hunt” tries to depict something that the median conservative dreads above all else (a malicious conspiracy of decadent elites, constantly trying to prey on the helpless), “Unhinged” tries to do the same for liberals—focusing on an unstable Trumpy Bro on the blood-soaked warpath. Explicit slogans aren’t needed (or present): the aesthetics and mood are enough.

Only time will tell whether this split between “right” and “left” horror will shape the future of the genre. Horror films have always been transgressive, but weren’t always politicized in quite this way—earlier iterations appealed to a relatively unitary understanding of the “popular culture.” For example, in 1973, the demonic horror of “The Exorcist” drew on relatively ubiquitous religious values and a cultural sense of the sacred that was still strong enough to provoke sharp reactions from its audience. In the 1980s, the first wave of teen slashers (including such classics as “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th”) capitalized on deep concerns over risky behavior among teens and the impact of the sexual revolution.

But then again, perhaps this reading is wrong. Maybe there isn’t really a “split” in the genre at all: right now, the only monster that matters is the political Other, however one chooses to interpret that.

That can’t be good for the culture at large. But it does make for interesting movies.

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Posted by on August 24, 2020 in Thrillers

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