Strangled [2016] – A Flawed yet Challenging Psycho-Thriller

The pluralistic ignorance within the climate of rigorous social conformity in the post-war Soviet Union and East European communist states often provides a grimly fascinating account of totalitarianism. Add a notorious, elusive serial killer into the mix, the stagnation of bureaucracy and inhumanity of the system perfectly crystallizes. Andrei Chikatilo, who killed at least 52 people over fifteen years, stands as a fine representation of the ‘Era of Stagnation’. For years, the serial killings weren’t publicized since the superior officials believed that serial killing is a ‘western phenomenon’. The utter lack of forensic techniques and man power was also a big drawback. Eventually, the lead investigator Victor Burakov’s tenacity led to the capture of Chikatilo. It was meticulously chronicled in Robert Cullen’s non-fiction book The Killer Department (which was adapted into TV movie titled Citizen X). Bong Joon-ho’s fantastic thriller Memories of Murder (2003) revolved around the hunt for a serial killer in a provincial town during the times of political instability in Korean peninsula. Very recently, Polish crime drama I’m a Killer (2016) dealt with similar sociopolitical themes set against the backdrop of serial killings (the serial killer known as 'The Silesian Vampire’ killed fourteen women between 1964 and early 1970s; the years leading up to the Solidarity uprising and the end of Poland's Communist rule). Hungarian film-maker Arpad Sopsits’ Strangled ('A martfui rem', 2016) is another curious dramatization of the true story of a serial killer, set loose on women in a small town. The true events took place between 1957 and 1967 and the investigators were under immense pressure from the communist powers of the time.

It is 1957 and the authorities in the small provincial town of Martfu couldn’t believe a woman is raped and killed in a place that is dominated by a large shoe factory. It was the period of uprising, where the demand for reforms within iron-hand Soviet establishment was instantly squashed. Hence the police officials were also hell-bent on finding this perverted individual in order to showcase the much publicized smooth flow of justice. The officials get their man – Akos Reti (Gabor Jeszberenyi), a local shoe factory worker, who obsessively loved the murdered woman. The movie opens with Akos Reti re-enacting the murder for the gathered bureaucrats and reporters. But it soon becomes clear that the man is wrongly accused. However, the determined state prosecutor Gabor Katona (Zsolt Trill), facing pressure from higher-ups sends the innocent man to jail (first awarded death penalty which is later reduced to life sentence). He defines his corrupted stance like this, “After the counter-revolution, the regime had to prove the force of law and order …” Seven years later, the murders resume with the same modus operandi. A young, ambitious prosecutor Zoltan Szirmai (Peter Barnai) is sent to the town and he along with a embittered local inspector named Bota (Zsolt Anger) puts the investigation in the right track.

Nevertheless, Szirmai and Bota are repeatedly warned, since in their hunt for serial-killer, they have to be careful to not expose the flaws in Communist justice system. That may invite serious repercussions for the Soviet state, which is held together by strict conformity. As expected one regional party member decries, “There are no serial killers in this country”. While Bota and Szirmai come under immense pressure to find the culprit (without admitting the innocence of Akos Reti), government agents infiltrate the investigation team to keep everything in line. Still the murders continue and the narrative jumps to the perspective of uncaught serial-killer Pal Bognar (Karoly Hadjuk), also a shoe factory worker. He gradually gets addicted to the thrill of hunting down his victims, even though he wears a mask of normalcy in front of his wife, kid, and fellow workers.

Strangled contains a peculiar tone as it tries to juggle between different polarizing perspectives and different genres. Working together with cinematographer Gabor Szabo, director Arpad Sopsits brilliantly reconstructs the tension of the times in which these events took place. The formal qualities are sound, especially the night-time chase scenes are effectively staged, partly reminding us of David Fincher’s style. But the screenplay which tries to simultaneously move on three planes (from the perspective of investigator, killer, and innocent man) doesn’t intertwine very well. Sopsits’ unflinching showcase of sexualized male violence against women during the assault scenes wants to draw upon the narrative’s potent theme of authoritarian rule’s toxic effects. These scenes hang in between lurid sensationalism and truly unsettling tone. The violence does seem overindulgent when the murderer cuts off a woman’s breasts. Earlier, we witness killer’s manic emotions as he engages himself in the gruesome cut, but these constant lingering on mutilation feel a lot exploitative and gory just for the sake of it. The narrative intertwining of the various character trajectories are also saturated with cliched developments (the subplot involving inspector Bota and Akos Reti’s sister is one such thing). In fact, the generic conventions and visceral thrills calmly replace the movie’s ability to be an unsettling character study of a serial killer. In the end, Strangled’s (121 minutes) examination of the historic backdrop and debauched political arena is less memorable than the shocking violence and chilling nocturnal sequences played out on the screen. It doesn’t belong to the league of great true-crime serial killer films like Zodiac and Memories of Murder, yet it’s a gripping film with vibrant performances. 


Active Measures [2018] – Chilling Facts Rendered in a Blatant, Mildly Annoying Mode

The constant barrage of information on Trump [election] campaign and his administration’s relationship with various shady yet powerful Russian nationals could have been attributed to the vivid imagination of an American espionage novelist, if not for the mountain of damning evidence hinting at deeper, darker truths behind the generally obfuscating reactions of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. In many ways, the alleged Trump campaign collusion with Kremlin and Russian election meddling were as incendiary as the Watergate Scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon. There might not be proof beyond a reasonable doubt of a criminal conspiracy on the collusion-interference case (yet), although the Special Counsel investigation of Robert Mueller has ignited flow of revelations whose implications are far scarier and deeply contentious in the history of American politics. Jack Bryan’s documentary Active Measures (2018) is the latest of chilling inquiry into American President’s indisputable connection to Russia; one that would actively inspire outrage and doubtfulness.

Having keenly followed (following) the developments on Capitol Hill and Mueller’s investigation I must say that Jack Bryan’s crash course on the greatest 21st century espionage story, beginning from Putin’s rise to political power and sustenance of that power, by relying on an inner circle of kleptocratic oligarchs, gangsters, money-laundering bankers, and unscrupulous political advisers, doesn’t offer anything shockingly fresh. Active Measures does a good job in weaving disparate threads of the Trump-Russian/Putin story that could well serve as a recap on the startling developments (so far). Just before starting Bryan’s documentary, I had finished reading Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s ‘Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin's War on America and the Election of Donald Trump’, a sober and meticulous look at the nefarious Russian interference ploy. Metaphorically speaking, even as the ink on the investigative journalists’ report dries, the story has taken more twists and turns. But, what’s missing in Active Measures is the earnest, journalistic approach pursued by Isikoff and Corn. The documentary is heavily persuasive, and the assembled information is delivered in a delirious manner as the pulsating electronic music and assortment of high-profile talking heads displays a kind of urgency (much like social-media-fake-news) to instantly reach great number of the unsuspecting populace.

This whirlwind of devastating geopolitical maneuver by Putin and Kremlin is presented by Bryan through a team of notable figures, including Hillary Clinton, the late John McCain, and John Podesta. The title comes from what the intelligence community calls as key tactics from Russia to exert influence around the world (through propaganda, cyber-attacks, and centralized Russian power) despite the decline of its military and economic power. Director Bryan chronicles Putin's dirty work, starting from his ruthless treatment of former Soviet countries like Georgia, Ukraine and Estonia. He had unleashed Russian hackers, military and thugs to overturn democratic elections in the smaller nations, something the documentary (and various other news sources) attests as sort of experimental study before attacking the American elections. The narrative also strongly stresses on Putin’s dirty money, laundered by mobsters and oligarchs through real estate, particularly by buying the kind of overpriced condos Trump offers through his 30-plus towers around the world. Menacing mug shots of mobsters like Semion Mogilevich and Dmitry Rybolovlev, and oligarchs like Oleg Deripaska & Aras Agalarov are repeatedly displayed while extensively suggesting their operations to launder millions through untraceable shell companies. American-born British financier Bill Browder – the man behind Magnitsky Act which rattled Putin (strangely Magnitsky isn’t mentioned in the doc) – has already detailed how Putin how could very well be the richest man on the planet.

What’s more alarming was Trump’s alliance with seedy figures like Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Michael Cohen. Their dastardly schemes are damning in itself, especially Flynn’s ironical and hypocritical ‘Lock her Up’ chant during the election campaign, while he was deeply involved in duplicitous plans. Nevertheless, the frustrating thing about Jack Bryan’s approach is the choice to present host of documented facts alongside hearsay and overly familiar tidbits. In Isikoff’s book, Putin’s alleged origin story (as said to be) uttered by himself to Hillary Clinton is just a simple event used to glimpse at the man’s myth-making skills. But director Jack Bryan brings HRC to reiterate the story using old pics of Nazi menace (Clinton in one of her digressions about Putin calls him as the guy who likes ‘to manspread’). The strangely funny tidbit here becomes a foreshadowing element for Putin’s agents of influence. Nuance seems to be a farfetched word in the whole documentary. There’s a former Miss Hungary telling how Trump once invited her to his hotel room. It’s a big question what the film gains by reiterating the very familiar faulty nature of Trump with regard to his connection with Putin. Hence at certain point, the loud declamations by the interviewees become more propagandistic in nature. In fact, Bryan’s presentation of the outlandish claims mixed with true facts is too flashy that there is not much difference between his style and news agencies like RT and Sputnik (the propaganda outlets of Kremlin). Overall, Active Measures (110 minutes) lays out the dreadful issues afflicting current American political arena, albeit in a lopsided (conspicuous) manner that could be cherished more by those with little or no knowledge of possible Trump-Russia Collusion (and of course ardent supporters of Trump may still find it hard to digest the facts). 


Beast [2018] – A Gripping & Deliciously Dark Fairy Tale

Michael Pearce’s moody psychodrama Beast (2018), riffing on themes of identity, guilt, love and innocence, opens with its besieged, red-haired (27-year-old) protagonist Moll Huntford (Jessie Buckley) singing in a church choir. The choir master, who also happens to be Moll’s mother (Gerladine James), stops the singing and asks Moll to raise her voice and keep up with the vocal harmony. Later, in the day, Moll receives guests at her suburban family home, situated in a picturesque yet oppressive coastal small-town. The occasion is Moll’s birthday. She brushes off unwanted advances of a local police officer named Clifford (Trystan Gravelle) with fake smiles and uneasy pauses, while Moll’s sister announces her pregnancy to the gathering, hijacking the celebrations and wishes for herself. Instantly we sympathize for Moll, who is the odd-one-out at choir, an outsider at her own party and treated as one by her family.

Moll works as a tour guide on tourist buses, a job of course the sheltered girl dislikes. To vent her existential anxiety evoked by the birthday-party, Moll runs away to a nightclub, dancing all-night with a stud. In the morning, he walks Moll to a remote section of the beach and makes a move on her, a little forcefully that may undoubtedly lead to rape. He is interrupted by a gangly young man with a hunting rifle. He is an oddball named Pascal Renouf (Johnny Flynn) and emits an earthy sensuality which Moll feels attractive. Pascal says he is a native and calls himself a craftsman. Naturally, the stern mother who likes to keep Moll’s passion and desire on a leash disapproves her daughter’s choice for a boyfriend with subtly condescending gestures. At one romantic occasion, Pascal takes Moll to the top of cliff pointing towards the intimidating sea. The magnificent view, the warm sun, red wispy hair of Moll waving in the gentle breeze, and intense looks of Pascal makes the passionate kiss inevitable, sealing their bond. Going from such a description, Beast might seem to be a very simple story of lonely, ostracized souls finding each other. But this internal journey of Moll is not only populated with sun-glided visuals, but also plagued by predatory and feral instincts.

The small-town inhabitants are unsettled by the serial-killing spree, targeting the island’s teenage girls. Three girls are abducted and found brutally murdered, and a fourth one is already missing. It is when these tensions and paranoia is flaring up, Moll meets Pascal. She could very well be the young girl wearing a red riding cloak and Pascal the Big Bad Wolf. However, Moll is already written off as a ‘bad girl’ by the town residents (she is home-schooled due to a violent mistake made during her teenage years). So, she’s not sweet and shy virgin methodically stalked by a monster. She often finds empowerment by exhibiting the passions forbidden by her politely cruel mother. This is shown when Moll vigorously kisses Pascal on an empty field during nighttime. She pushes him to the ground and gets on top of him. In the next scene, Moll sits at her living room sofa, her skin streaked with soil. In these moments, the animalism lurking beneath Moll’s frail stance comes to the fore. Subsequently, when Moll learns Pascal is not all he claims to be and faces town bullies’ unchecked rage, the torrid, dark energy within the young woman plays a pivotal role. Caught in-between the struggle to find moral footing and resist animalistic attraction, Moll’s descent into darkness is emotionally and visually rewarding.

Beast is an accomplished debut feature from Michael Pearce that is neither a tale of romance nor a serial-killer thriller. It’s a tragic and tense character study, set in a beguiling landscape that is at once eerie and ethereal. The ‘bad-girl-meets-bad-boy’ trope has offered a very familiar sub-genre of crime flicks (Kalifornia, Natural Born Killers to state few examples). But Pearce in his treatment of bucolic surroundings with respect to the protagonist’s existential agony brings to mind Terrence Malick’s debut feature Badlands (1973). Both the central characters are wonderfully ambivalent, with Buckley’s Moll easily dominating the film. Buckley perfectly crafts a portrait of a repressed girl, craving for a cathartic discharge. The subtlety with which she reveals joy, vulnerability, and rage delivers a decisive emotional impact even when the narrative takes familiar paths. Flynn brings an aura of intrigue and mystery to Pascal, keeping us on edge about whether we should be worried about him or not.

Working with cinematographer Benajamin Kracun, director Pearce conjures a sense of oppression and isolation from the sweeping coastlines’ scenic beauty. This purposefully non-tourist gaze makes Moll’s literal isolation resound in her surroundings. When Moll rebuffs her family’s snobbish behavior towards Pascal, we see a shot of huge waves clobbering the lovers. This tactic of using landscape as a conduit for Moll’s feelings or to set the lovers against the world pays good dramatic dividends (Pearce also does well with the wild nightmarish sequences).  Overall, Beast (106 minutes) makes up for what it lacks in originality through assured direction, layered writing, and Jessie Buckley’s mesmerizing performance. It’s a slow-burn fable, observing the limits of love and the darkest corners of evil. 


Welcome to Leith [2015] – An Incredibly Compelling Documentary on Extremism and Civil Liberties

Leith is a tiny & tranquil hamlet in North Dakota, USA with a population of just 24 (including children) and widely dotted with crumbling, dilapidated structures. It definitely questions the definition of a town and the only working business in it is the local bar. The people seem well-mannered and remain representatives of the very rural phraseEverybody has each other’s backs.” The ghost town was direct effect of the state’s oil boom and everything from Leith’s vintage signboard to its total isolation gives the feeling of having traveled back in time. Directors Christopher Walker and Michael Beach Nichols’ remarkable documentary Welcome to Leith (2015), however, isn’t a muted chronicle of the life in a sleepy town.

Back in 2011, a thin, bearded elderly guy named Craig Cobb moved to Leith. He first brought a decrepit house with no running water. Later, he bought few other cheap lots of land in and around Leith. What the town residents didn’t know was that Cobb is a notorious Nazism-spouting, anti-Semitic white supremacist. With land prices at an all-time low in Leith, Cobb has put out a call to his brethren to help him take political control of the small town and turn it into a haven for like-minded racists. Walker and Nichols’ documentary drops us straight into this conflict of attempted takeover, with dozen or so local people seeming to stand against Cobb’s desire to build his own Nazi utopia. Despite the high-running tensions and an allegedly clear-cut good vs evil perspective, directors Nichols and Walker take a calm, even-keeled approach, gaining full access and trust (over the course of eight months) of the bewildered residents and the overly determined Cobb (and his supporters).  

Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit organization that monitors hate groups and other extremist factions throughout the US, considers Cobb “one of the top ten white supremacists in the United States”. Some of his cronies include Alex Linder of the Vanguard News Network and Tom Metzger, people who advocate Jewish genocide. Once Cobb’s intentions were made clear to the townspeople and after New York Times did a story on Cobb’s plans in Leith (in August 2013), the situation turned kind of scary. Cobb started posting the town residents’ personal information online – as he had previously done with judges who’d ruled against him, where in one case it (indirectly) led to two murders – and proudly displayed flags of formerly all-white nations of Europe. He spouted hate at town-hall meeting, hoping to make them react with fear. And not long before, the reasonable people of Leith declared: “We’re going to start packing guns all the time”.

In one extreme situation, Cobb and his invitee Kynan Dutton – a troubled war veteran and member of National Socialist Movement who has moved with his wife and two kids – patrol the streets of Leith carrying loaded weapons. Eventually, the Sheriff’s deputies arrest Cobb and Dutton and charge them with seven counts of terrorizing. However, a less-punishing plea deal angers the residents, although the deal forced Cobb out of town (the vacant plots of land are however still owned by white supremacists). Cobb has from then on attempted similar moves in small towns and his increasing online activity is centered on endorsing Donald Trump.

Welcome to Leith tells a very specific tale of extremism, even though its emotional implications are easily relatable. Nichols and Walker’s distanced observational skills help in showcasing how toxic beliefs could perpetuate a climate of fear which may irreparably affect the lives and perspectives of rational, reasonable individuals. The directing duo could have simply made this into black & white affair by solely focusing on Cobb’s obnoxious, irritable ideology. But they subtly raise questions about how Leith residents finally reacted to the perceived danger (the bullying and burning as they view police & judicial system super-inefficient). Much more interesting is the way Nichols and Walker allow the Aryan separatists and Neo-Nazis to speak for themselves. The matter-of-fact declarations of these racist head cases provide a very palpable, terrifying look at extremist beliefs. Craig Cobb comes off as the multi-faceted guy no fiction writer could conceive. His warm smile may make some think him as the nicest guy on the planet. But the striking moment where he marches with a rifle around the town, bragging about being ‘one of the most famous racists in the world’ is outright horrific.

The sheer volatile nature of Cobb, not only makes him fearful, but also at times pathetic. Nichols and Walker’s approach might be seen passive and laid-back to a fault. However, their staunchly neutral stance raises some important questions about freedom of speech (most particularly about US constitution's first amendment rights), especially when Cobb admits he spends 16 or 17 hours a day to spread pure hate online. While Cobb is no doubt dangerous, few observations by the directors kind of make him a laughable character. It’s amusing to see him after the release from jail, courteously requesting an African-American motel clerk for a room. Despite understanding the weight of Cobb’s hateful thoughts, we unnaturally feel an iota of pity at the sight of this forlorn old guy carrying all his possessions in a garbage bag. The directors’ nuanced pronouncement here is that they don’t have to demonize Cobb, when he is very much capable of doing it through his words and actions. Nevertheless, there are few occasions where Nicholas and Walker’s gliding camera movements seem to belong in a horror feature (aided by a haunting score done by composer T. Griffin), creating a tense immediacy. The documentary as one could expect ends without a conclusion. The people of Leith have put the things behind them and want things to go back to normal, the way they were before coming under national spotlight. Craig Cobb is also following his normal routine of hate-spouting who adores his leader & US President Trump. Overall, Welcome to Leith (85 minutes) is a timely and terrifying look at hate-groups roaming the land of dreams and opportunities.