Finnish writer/director Teemu Nikki calls his third feature film, Euthanizer (‘Armomurhaaja’, 2018), a violent Finnish summer noir. The basic idea for the film is derived from the vigilante genre films of 1970s and 80s; a lonely punisher prefers to deliver instant justice to the wrongdoers. But despite the B-movie exploitation genre vibe, Euthanizer has a fine emotional core, which brings forth a poignant examination of suffering and cruelty. The fifty-year-old Veijo (the brilliant Matti Onnismaa, a veteran actor in his first leading role) runs a broken-down auto-repair shop (‘Haukka's Repairs and End Solutions’) in a poor backwater region of Finland. He has a side business as black-market pet euthanizer. Interestingly, Veijo also happens to be an animal lover who claims to deeply understand and feel the pain of animals. The hapless pet owners often bring their suffering pets since they can’t afford the high fees demanded by local veterinary hospital, for either healing or euthanizing them.
In the opening scene, we see Veijo leading the life of a hermit, working from a derelict shed. The place is littered with pet carriers and behind his house in the plot of trees, dog collars dangles from the branches. A young woman brings her old, sick cat to be put to sleep. With a dead-pan stare, Veijo explains that small animals get the gas, while the bigger ones are shot. He has Jerry-rigged his car to turn it into a gas chamber. When the woman asks if her cat will suffer, Veijo lists the suffering the cat has gone through as her pet: from confinement to wasting illness (“your flat is a 20-odd square meter prison. The normal habitat for a feline is over a square kilometer. It can’t be replaced by an evening cuddle”, he casually remarks). After gassing the cat, Vejio tosses it into a bag, pours some lime, and buries it among the trees in backyard. The philosophy and contradiction behind being an animal lover and euthanizer is addressed through Veijo’s further actions.
Veijo, cloaked in black tux and black sneakers, sees himself as some kind of ‘Angel of Death’ for miserable pets in the area. He even travels the local roads to find and bury the road-kills. He berates every customer who has mistreated their animals in some way and wants to teach a lesson or two about domesticating animals in order to serve as pets. His strong belief in Karma makes him think that you cannot do anything you choose without facing its consequences. Veijo locks a dog owner in his dog’s kennel and straight-out refuses to put down a dog, whose owner he suspects is lying about the dog biting his child. However, when the owner beleaguers Veijo, he extracts more money and promises to put it to sleep. But Veijo simply takes in the dog as his own pet. The dog owner is a clumsy garage mechanic and member of a racist gang, Petri (Jari Virman). They call themselves ‘Soldiers of Finland’, but these neo-nazis are actually pathetic, miserable and lonely. When not shooting and gassing the animals, Veijo visits his ailing father at the hospice, where he meets young nurse Lotta (Hannamaija Nikander). She is attracted towards Veijo’s strict moral code. A sort of twisted romance is established between them as Lotta likes getting choked during sex. All the unaddressed emotions and desires implode at one moment, moving towards the inevitable, predestined show-down between Veijo and Petri.
Those who doesn’t flinch watching humans being subjected to violence on-screen, but bawl their eyes out when witnessing hints of on-screen violence directed against animals should be forewarned. Although, the animal deaths are devoid of graphic violence, it might still be perturbing for some. For the most part, Euthanizer is an interesting, low-budget take on B-movie revenge plots like the recent John Wick. Director Teemu Nikki doesn’t really try to revive or reconstruct the familiar vigilante story, but he smartly breaks the conventional rules for realizing heroes and villains. Here the hero, whom we root for, shoots and kills both animals and humans without a second thought, whereas the villain is just an ignorant, misled family man with a desire to gain some respect in life. Petri stands-in for the increasing white discontent, whose violent streak arises from the fear of dis-empowerment. Teemu is also disdainful of Veijo’s righteously indignant moralistic attitude. Of course, we stand-by Veijo when he delivers his personal revenge on the jackasses. But the film is not pro-vigilantism since director Teemu sharply addresses the ironies Veijo failed to acknowledge. The final shot is darkly humorous as well as unsettling, reflecting Veijo’s own philosophical blind spot (or distorted moral compass) while reiterating his Karmic belief: you can’t escape the consequences.
Teemu Nikki is pretty much a self-taught film-maker, who has directed, wrote, edited and co-produced the movie. So the final product instills a sense of hand-made look which finely balances the B-movie sensibilities and commentary on morality and anti-heroes. In this vein, Euthanizer can serve as companion piece to the other fairly interesting revenge flicks from this year: Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge and Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade. All these movies take strange detours and boasts suave twists so as to transcend the limits of grungy, old-school revenge tales. It’s all both familiar and distinctive and adds more depth to the bleaker worldview.
Paraguayan film-maker Marcelo Martinessi’s graceful slow cinema The Heiresses ('Las herederas', 2018) opens with the image of women appraising ornate objects – like cutlery, crystal glassware, linens, paintings, etc – in a cosy drawing room with feigned disinterest. This shot is framed in a way as if someone is watching these women from a hallway through the slightly ajar creaking doors. The person behind the door remain nailed to her place as the visiting women haggle over the precious antiques with a judicious fifty-something woman named Chiquita (Margarita Irun). The other woman who retreats into her bedroom, and in a sense from the outside world, is Chela (Ana Brun), the long-time partner of Chiquita. Both the eponymous heiresses supposedly hail from a blue-blooded family, whose wealth however is in constant decline. Chela wants to save herself from humiliation by leaving the financial practicalities, which involves selling heirlooms to inquisitory (female) buyers, to the worldly Chiquita. Director Martinessi subtly and neatly lays out the burdensome personal setting through this adroitly observed opening scene and further hints at the simmering discontent lying beneath.
Paraguay was pinioned by dictatorship until 1989 which smothered the nation’s footprints. Still it’s alleged to be a ultra-conservative nation with not much space for cinematic expression. Although Martinessi’s debut feature doesn’t spell out the country’s past and is simply composed as an intimate character study, it could become a significant point of reference in modern Paraguayan cinema. In fact, The Heiresses is a daring film (to be made in any nation slowly recovering from the throes of dictatorship) in its own way, because it’s about an ageing lesbian couple and moreover tackles the world of women (there’s not a single prominent male character in the cast). Martinessi may have painted this journey of self-discovery and liberation in a smaller canvas, but it’s nevertheless rendered in an exceptionally assured manner. Thanks to Berlin Film Festival, the film’s visibility has expanded as it picked up multiple awards, including Silver Bear for Ana Brun’s deeply evocative performance.
Director Martinessi neither establishes the titular heiresses’ past nor gives a concrete reason for their financial downfall. While the cherished artifacts get gradually dismantled or displaced from the plush home, the vivacious Chiquita squarely faces the ordeal, whereas the more introverted Chela stay morose in considering their worsening financial reality. Change looks like an intimidating enemy for Chela as her haven, filled with cutleries and paintings, turns into a prison. Adding to her woe is Chiquita's inevitable trip to the prison due to unpaid debts. Now left under the care of a clumsy new maid Pati (Nilda Gonzalez), Chela is forced to become pragmatic and self-dependent. At first Chela seems content to wait for Chiquita, but an old, spiteful and affluent neighbor named Pituca (Maria Martins) inadvertently turns Chela into a taxi driver. She starts driving group of older women to their bridge club, which allows her to meet up with the sensual forty-something Angy (Ana Ivanova). Subsequently, Chela seizes every opportunity to be near the lovely Angy, although the woman is clearly in a heterosexual relationship.
The Heiresses could be read as a late coming-of-age tale of a cloistered woman, who overcomes her delusions regarding wealth and sexual desirability. Nevertheless, what elevates this lean narrative is Martinessi’s nuanced direction which never gives into melodrama or other contrivances. This is very much a unshowy yet intimate exploration of a older woman’s sexuality, infused with yearning sidelong glances (although the risque factor is lot less than in Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria). We constantly expect Chela to run into some sort of trouble -- in the motorway or a spar with the ladies of localized taxi service – even though the director’s focus wholly lies on exhibiting how the old woman undergoes transformation due to her freshly reawakened desire (a secretive late love). Chela’s social status that’s also under transformation allows Martinessi to observe the nature of wealthy women of certain age, finding entitlement and pride through the comfy cushion of privilege. But the director’s reflection is loaded with deftness of touch and compassion that we feel for these elderly women who try to retrieve a sense of agency.
Martinessi’s aesthetics mostly attunes to small details, effortlessly conveying the interior lives of a class of women. From Chela’s painting table to the precise arrangement of water, pills, and diet coke in the tray, the details are attended with care that the random materials seems to have hold over Chela’s emotionality. The geography of the home is never displayed in a clear-cut manner and diegetic sounds from previous scene flows into the next in order to comment on the character’s confinement. Not only the sounds within the house, the noise inside the prison compound or in motorway add to the feelings of alienation. And by telling Chela’s story through Ana Braun’s expressive eyes, whose quiet presence shines through the darkened door ways, Martinessi organically taps into emotional depths. The introspective Ana conveys her sense of desire in delicate strokes. Eventually, the depiction of lost generation of wealthy Paraguayans in debt could also be read as a metaphorical representation of oppression within the internal fibre of a society. Altogether, The Heiresses (98 minutes) is an expertly crafted drama on self-determination, loss, independence, and sexual reawakening.
Angie Thomas’ 2017 young adult novel The Hate U Give offered a complex portrait of race and class issues troubling contemporary America through a poignant coming-of-age narrative. While YA novels like The Hunger Games trilogy (by Susanne Collins) reflected on oppressive political power through the dystopian near-future setting, Angie Thomas eschewed allegorical notes to directly tackle the violent, abusive reality of racial hatred. The book was a huge mainstream success (occupied 50 weeks in the New York Times bestseller list), and it’s fascinating to see a quicker movie adaption and that too by a major Hollywood studio (Love, Simon was another recent and first of its kind big-studio narrative to feature a gay lead character). Moreover, George Tillman Jr.’s smooth adaptation of The Hate U Give highly succeeds because of the lead actress at its center: Amandla Stenberg (Rue in ‘The Hunger Games’) in a mesmerizing star-making performance.
Angie Thomas was driven by the gruesome death of 22 year-old African-American Oscar Grant (subject of heart-wrenching biopic ‘Fruitvale Station’), shot by Oakland police officer Johannes Mehserle, in order to start writing her novel. In the next few years, police killings of unarmed black people only increased in numbers, whereas the trials and conviction of police officers are considerably rare. The Hate U Give smartly presents that righteous fury over other plethora of injustices inflicted on African-American community which remains frequently heartfelt and occasionally didactic. The tale also reflects on the fractured nature of black communities, endlessly mired in drugs and gang violence.
The film opens with 16-year-old Starr Carter’s (Amandla Stenberg) inner monologue, who chronicles her life as a young black girl from a working-class, high-crime neighborhood (‘Garden Heights’) and travels across the city to attend Williamson, a affluent and predominantly white prep school. Starr talks of her two different identities: the Version 1 means confirming to her neighborhood’s vernacular and other standards, whereas the Version 2 is all about acting refined and serious and not ‘intimidating’ white friends with her blackness. Starr version 2 also has to put up with her white friends’ appropriation of black culture. Once Starr’s conflicting identities and tentative relationship with white boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa) are established, the narrative jumps to a neighborhood party which sets off chain of devastating events. In the party, Starr meets Khalil (Algee Smith), a childhood friend and her first crush, who has made some poor decisions in life due to family pressures.
When a confrontation breaks out at the party, Khalil decides to drive Starr home and even steals a kiss from her. But once the police-car lights come on, we anticipate the worst. The young, nervous white police officer mistakes hairbrush for a handgun and shoots down Khalil. After the senseless murder, Starr begins sees the world for what it is and her smooth to and fro transition between two identities becomes harder. Much like the 2014 Ferguson shooting, Khalil’s murder sparks outrage and protests in the local community. Despite a witness, the killer police man could possibly go scot-free. And as usual, police and media strive to reduce Khalil into a uni-dimensional criminal. Starr’s identity as being the sole witness to the crime isn’t yet revealed to the larger world. The rest of the narrative is all about Starr agonizing over whether to take a stand against the despicable crime and judicial cover-up or keep her head down as always. In due time, Starr’s camaraderie with her school friends is tested as they are either ignorantly racist or irritatingly callow. At home, Starr’s father Maverick (Russell Hornby), staying true to his name, encourages his daughter to be brave. However, mother Lisa (Regina Hall) fears for Starr’s safety. One visible threat for Starr’s family comes from drug dealing gangster King (Anthony Mackie), who has got lot to lose if the girl provides the testimony (in front of grand jury) implicating him.
Similar to this year’s independent features BlacKkKlansman and Blindspotting, The Hate U Give blisteringly rallies against the institutional racism. And this being a teen drama with old-school sentimentality might help the polemical subject matter to reach wider audience. George Tillman Jr.’s fairly skillful and candid direction (he uses a warmer color palette for Garden Heights and frigid blue palette for Williamson) stages each learning moment of Starr Carter with maximum impact. Audrey Wells’ adapted script contains all the cliched, contrived elements present in the novel. But for the most part, it keeps alive the simmering tension and breathes in sense of urgency. The family exchanges are effectively dramatized, observing their perseverance, anger, and frustration with utmost care. Most importantly, both the film and novel acknowledges the grey areas (the rampant criminal behavior in black neighborhood) and deep-seated social ills (poverty, housing, unemployment) rather than being a simple political slogan. Much of the stirring visuals and scenario are borrowed from real-life events (for example, Starr throwing a tear gas canister) which makes trials and tribulations of Starr Carter unmistakably relevant.
The movie suffers a bit whenever its dramatic stakes are overly elevated. This could be felt with the whole sub-plot involving Mackie’s drug lord character. The confrontation between him and Starr’s family infuses artificiality to the proceedings that contrasts the general tone of lived-in realism. At times, extra effort is taken to reiterate the messages: for example, after Starr’s powerful speech over a megaphone in the angry protests, a mawkish scenario follows in order to once again remind us of Tupac Shakur’s acronym THUG LIFE (The Hate U Give Little Infants F**ks Everybody). Nevertheless, the narrative shines while accounting how Starr’s double life reality collides with one another. There’s a brilliant reactionary scene whens she harshly reprimands (with a hairbrush) her so-called progressive white friend, who can’t perceive an issue past her own racial, class blind spots. Chris, Starr’s boyfriend, although starts off as a caricature of clumsy white teenager, is given some space to develop into a real character. Of course, the emboldening aspect of the film is clearly Amandla Stenberg’s illuminating presence. She splendidly charts Starr’s transformation into a self-possessed girl while gracefully tackling wide range of emotions: love, shock, grief, fear, anger, and tenacity. Altogether, The Hate U Give (128 minutes) is a melodramatic yet an intricate YA narrative about America’s incessant racial strife.