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Debts No Honest Man Could Pay

Ben Foster and Chris Pine Photo Credit: Lorey Sebastian

Hell or High Water is a sneaky-profound, accomplished, very welcome resurrection of a favorite exploitation genre that tragically disappeared: the mid-1970’s, widescreen, stick-it-to-the-Man, shoot-em-up with a Message. A bleak revisionist Western, Hell plays – as intended – like a modern country song. But not a cornball Nashville nursery rhyme like something by Toby Keith. At its best, Hell becomes a self-aware, hard-edged lament by Jason Isbell or Sturgill Simpson – a bloody ballad, cadenced and elegiac.

Or, given Hell’s intertwined hope and defeat, it’s pure narcocorrido.* It has all the elements: a good man gone bad for good reason; a bad man who does not want and knows he does not deserve redemption;  a fatherly law enforcement figure whose soul vengeance turns to ice and his “half-breed” partner at home in neither the white nor his native world. Each of their tales fuel a yearning for a lost time and place, a yearning for what coulda shoulda woulda.

The Man getting it stuck to is a Texas bank about to foreclose on the family home of two brothers, Ben Foster and Chris Pine. They set out to rob the bank of enough cash to pay off the mortgage. The bank wants to foreclose to exploit soon-to-begin oil leases; the brothers have to stop the bank, ditto.

Illuminating the theme of disenfranchised working-class whites caught in the cogs of oppressive big business, the brother’s success would bring a double payoff: screwing the bank screwing them and cashin’ in on that oil lucre like the invisible fat-cats who pull the strings that ruined their lives.

 Chris Pine slouches around all monosyllabic gazing sideways into the middle distance, doing his best Chris Hemsworth impression, and it’s pretty good. Ben Foster performs the heavy lifting and so talks non-stop. He occasionally wrecks the taut atmospthere by speaking the film’s themes aloud. At times the two seem like actors who just met trading lines. But at crucial plot moments, their chemistry ignites. Fortunately, their less convincing exchanges come in the first quarter of the film.

The yin to their yang are Texas Rangers, a revelatory Jeff Bridges, accompanied by Gil Birmingham as his wisecracking partner. Insult-swapping cops is an ‘80’s, not a ‘70’s trope, but exploitation demands suppression of male to male affection no matter what the era. Like the bros, the most loving thing the cops can say to each other is: Fuck you. The story crosscuts between the two sets of bros with precision timing and suspense. As in any worthy ballad, rhythm is Hell ’s strong suit.

Hell is men in a man’s world. There is no romantic subplot. Women appear briefly. They’re all so fed up with manly antics they can barely lift their eyebrows in resignation; a Greek chorus of women who find macho posturing tiresome and ridiculous. That's not the usual role for women in a Western, to say the least. Malin Ireland, playing Pine’s former wife, steals every scene with her laden silences. A lesser film would offer hints of reconciliation. But in this hardscrabble landscape, there ain't no do-overs.

 In the most powerful sequence, the brothers race out of a robbed bank to discover exactly what awaited the Jesse James-Cole Younger gang when they emerged from a plundered bank in Northfield, Minnesota in 1876:** an armed populace hype to blow their heads off. Pine and Foster met a pistol-packing Texan in an earlier robbery and escaped as he emptied his clip – even though they made of point of not taking his cash. Hell captures the seething, hair-trigger resentment of disenfranchised flyovers with Conceal Carry permits. It’s a sophisticated irony and a mid-‘70’s flashback that the trigger-happy Texas rednecks can’t recognize the brothers as their potential allies in armed revolt. The underemployed rednecks’ impotent rage makes them rejoice at a chance for legal murder. Their cold-blooded, gleeful fusillade speaks volumes about the contemporary electorate. And about how mid-‘70’s message shoot-em-ups always showed society rejecting their heroes.

The brothers race away from the bank and Hell presents a moment you’ve never before seen in a Western. Instead of horses, the armed posse fire up their pickups and SUVs and give chase. As the brothers return fire, civilian blood-lust explodes. Bridges by this time has his own reason to kill, and his performance becomes astonishing. He’s been mailing it in for a while, but here brings levels of Old Testament righteousness, of mixed grief and triumph, even his long-time fans never suspected he could never pull off. Watching him Ranger and wise-crack and be hard-bitten all over Texas of course brings to mind Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men. Maybe that intimidating example inspired Bridges.

No Country looms large over Hell. Margaret Bowman – the motel clerk who can’t believe Josh Brolan wants more than one room – appears as a tough-ass waitress. She’s funny, but insists the only choice available today is what you don’t want. When secondary characters speak more than one sentence at a time – which is rare – they describes the loss of a cherished status quo. Their language is rueful and clean, Cormac McCarthy Lite. Their tiny speeches never hit a false note; they’re singing three-sentence ballads of defeat. Okay, it’s a message Western; somebody’s got to deliver the Message. 

Hell’s clumsy moments do not overwhelm its grace notes. There are plot-holes as wide as the Texas sky pushed aside by scenes right out of Jean-Pierre Melville. Foster’s best moment comes in a confrontation with a scary Native American in a casino. Foster offends him on purpose, then tries to show their affinity. The Native American, like a prideful gangster in a French Noir, is not appeased. Echoing the women, he’s had a sufficiency of swaggering broke-ass cowboys.

Hell suffers when it hits you over the head with its themes. The posse scene proves memorable because there’s no attempt at commentary. Nick Cave’s score finds the exact tone between pastoral and dread. Unfortunately, every country song on the soundtrack is wrong-headed, too on-the-nose and distracting. The film tries to use the songs to underscore emotion the scenes already evoke. The opening number – a Townes Van Zandt song that sounds nothing like Townes – and the song over the closing credits are the most egregious offenders. Each bad song hurls you out of the story.

At first Bridges was bemused, as was Pine, at what seemed to both a game. Come to the end, and neither’s assuaged the anger that fuels a war between them. The finale is bold and carefully wrought  – a truly great exploitation set-piece. Director David Mackenzie, who showed no fear of ambiguity in his under-seen Young Adam, revels in the unresolved ending. Unresolved because the saga changed Bridges and Pine. Each now sees the other – failed law enforcement vs. homegrown anarchy – as the source of his ruin. There is no simple solution and the film doesn’t stoop to provide one.


Jeff Bridges Photo Credit: Lorey Sebastian



* Like this one from Breaking Bad 

** cf. The Great Smithfield, Minnesota Raid


The Long Riders


Better yet, read Ron Hansen’s Desperadoes



Maïwenn’s MON ROI Good Love Gone Bad  

Emmanuelle Bercot and Vincent Cassel courtesy Film Movement

Vincent Cassel – Georgio – is stylish, cool, unknowable. You know, he’s Vincent Cassel ! Georgio falls for Emmanuelle Bercot – Tony – a shrewd, slightly nerdy barrister. She can’t believe it, but he sweeps her off her feet. Mon Roi – a ­ harrowing, adult masterpiece – tracks their relationship over the years and raises unanswerable questions. Is Georgio a strong-willed, self-directed dude who does things his way and ignores his wife's priorities? Or is he a charismatic sociopath, a lying narcissist and a gaslighting psycho? Is Tony confused, emotionally abused or too bourgeois and inflexible to handle the love of the man who inspires her deepest emotions? Most unanswerable of all: Are any of these options mutually exclusive?

These questions fuel the most insightful, moving and convincing relationship film since Scenes of A Marriage. But Bergman’s Scandinavian Lutheran rationalism could never embrace the self-contradictory, chthonic truth of sustained relationships: that love and loathing combine and intertwine, daily. And that people operate against their own interests all the time, often for a perverse pleasure they can’t even identify. Writer/director Maïwenn presents that intertwining and perversity as the baseline of any great passion.

In Polisse*, Maïwenn’s second film, you can feel her discovering what will be her greatest strengths in Mon Roi. She loves intercutting between interlocking stories. Her naturalist, almost documentary, camera is a heat-seeking missile. She cuts to close-ups only for greatest impact, and holds the most wrenching scenes in extended medium shots. Her strongest visual influence seems to be French director Olivier Assayas (Something in the Air, Carlos, Irma Vep). But he’s only an influence. Maïwenn’s instinctive and original.

She shares Cimino and Copolla's genius for creating credible, lived-in group dynamics among either blood- or work-families. She inspires astonishing, sustained performances that build and develop complexity. She understands – to a degree matched only by English writer/director Joanna Hogg (Unrelated; Archipelago; Exhibition)** – how intimacy ebbs and flows over years or in a heartbeat. Maïwenn captures fleeting but cataclysmic facial expressions and gestures – tiny domestic moments – on which marriages founder or endure. Maïwenn’s cinematic intelligence is on par with her emotional intelligence. Her emotional intelligence is profound. And fearless.

Maybe Maïwenn’s greatest gift as a writer/director is primality – a direct presentation of gut emotions. Her men and women feel before they think. Tony tries to parse her feelings by thinking. It don’t work. Georgio barely thinks; his feelings run him. Their opposite approaches frustrate and bind them in equal measure.

Director Maïwenn, Patrick Raynal and Vincent Cassel courtesy Film Movement

Maïwenn intercuts between Tony as a resident in a physical therapy center – she blew out her knee skiing – and memories of her years with Georgio. At certain points the intercutting and Tony’s systematic healing work a little too hard. We get it: Tony’s rehabbing her knee as she rehabs herself. She revels in pal-time with some young bros getting PT. Being free of Georgio means being free of desire. That freedom is a blessed relief.

Georgio’s moneyed, heedless, capable of great kindness and opaque. He bluffs and lies like Satan. Tony catches him naked in bed with a young model. Georgio not only denies having sex with her, he denies knowing her. And he’s damn convincing. Equally convincing is his volcanic rage when Tony won’t do what he wants. Georgio seesaws between amour fou and cold-hearted self-indulgence. He demands that his suicidal former lover come to live in the home he and Tony share.

Tony never colludes in Georgio’s shitty treatment of her. She’s not a victim, despite his – possibly unconscious – efforts to make her one. She’s smarter than he is and plenty tough. She stands up for herself throughout, even in the face of his terrifying rages. Problem is, Tony’s too damn sane to cope with Georgio’s mercurial, heartfelt follies. And he knows how to make her feel guilty even for refusing to go along with his most nutcase urges. Tony, like us, can’t tell whether Georgio’s deranged or playing her for all he’s worth. Tony finds no clarity, except in bed.

The atomic power of their sexual connection startles Tony and Georgio every time. Their love scenes are too raw and laden to be sex scenes. They’re too explicit and erotic to be love scenes. They’re fuck scenes: human, hot and credible. Nothing harder (no pun intended) to pull off (ditto) in literature or film. Yet, Maïwenn does. Tony and Georgio’s lust never abates, even when they despise each other. The explicit moments reflect and describe different stages of the relationship. Each scene also shows – without underlining or doubling down with dialogue – Georgio’s electrifying, judgment-frying sexual hold on Tony.

courtesy Film Movement

Those scenes may be graphic, but Tony’s luxurious state-run physical rehab center is the truly pornographic fantasy in Mon Roi. Live-in physical therapy, private rooms with TV, one-on-one PT instructors, pools, classes, generous meals, esoteric rehab gear and, most pornographically, a French babe shrink asking Toni in concerned tones why she thinks she fell while skiing! Can you imagine an American insurance provider funding a shrink to ask why you wrecked your ACL? That’s a proper application of taxpayer money! And a much more powerful lust-inducer than either of the stars for all their hot fucking.

In one amusing moment, Tony freaks out on Georgio for wanting to hang only with his “beautiful people.” Georgio, in some shady way, connects to the fashion world. His high-cheekboned crowd is a magazine shoot come to life. Tony thinks Georgio should spend more time with the real people, like her brother and sister-in-law. Maïwenn’s life in the beauty bubble – she’s a former model of dazzling, feral, charisma – may have warped her view of real people. Tony’s brother, though Maïwenn hides him under a series of moronic baseball caps, is Patrick Raynal, a brooding French Heathcliff. Maïwenn’s real-life sister – the ethereal, heart-stopping Islid Le Besco – plays Tony’s sister-in-law. In the silent era, Le Besco’s northern Renaissance face and angelic detachment would have made her an enormous star. Real people, these ain’t.

What makes Mon Roi extraordinary is Maïwenn’s evocation of both romantic partners as equally rich, complex, self-perplexing and compelling. The other characters are sketches, backdrops to the main event, but Tony and Georgio have the breadth of great literary characters and each carries equal weight. It’s something you seldom see and rewards multiple viewings.

 In the final moments, after all the battles – all the coming together and blowing apart – Tony, despite herself, remains enthralled. Thrilled to be free, enthralled for life.

Maïwenn asks without taking sides: Is this the nature of love?

* Amazon streaming

**All on Netflix


It Ain’t All Ambrosia – Gods and Goddesses Cavort in A Bigger Splash

An astute, merciless, Pinterequse duel to the death. Courtesy Fox Searchlight


Vanity Fair only profiles four types of people:

1) Someone young, glossy, gorgeous, mad fuckable, talented, lucky and on the rise. She wouldn’t touch you with a ten-foot pole and her week beats your year. *

2) Someone in the prime of life and career. A gleaming armor of success gilds his wealth, beauty, fuckability and celebrity. His weekend beats your year.

3) Someone in their golden years who either remained successful, gorgeous, fuckable and famous or who lost it all. Whether reminiscing from their cashmere couch or scarfing cat food with their remaining Tiffany spoon, his or her memories of a single glorious night beat any ten years you can barely recall.

4) Any of the above who get their comeuppance/martyrdom by dying/getting killed.**

A Bigger Splash features all four types. And on first viewing, proves as irritating as any Vanity Fair profile. There’s something profoundly irksome about “all this useless beauty,” glamor and privilege. ***

Yet the very aspects of Splash that seemed so off-putting prove to the most fascinating and sustaining. First time round, the mostly naked Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Ralph Fiennes and Matthias Schoenaerts prove too distracting. They’re so darn purty! And worldly! And chic! It’s hard to focus on subtext when Swinton does one of her patented, languorous angel/demon/alien pre-coital stretches. Providing more distraction is an unending parade of movie star full-frontal. Ralph Fiennes dick? A gynecological close-up of Swinton from behind? Schoenaerts’ scrotum? All you might want and more. Johnson plays a 17-year old and so appears only naked from head to toe.

Schoenaerts and Swinton are in love. They’re hiding out up in glamly understated villa on the barren, serene island of Pantelleria. Swinton’s former flame and Schoenaerts’ former pal Fiennes shows up, with his maybe-daughter Johnson in tow. Swinton’s a rock star recovering from surgery. In flashbacks of her onstage, she’s a semi-Bowie figure and Swinton – who’s rumored to be considering playing Bowie in a biopic – makes you believe. She makes you believe by never singing onstage, a rare moment of restraint from director Luca Guadagnino. His previous film, the camp, risible I Am Love, suggests that restraint is not in his quiver.

Fiennes is a guy we all know: nonstop energy, unquenchable sex drive, outdrinks/drugs everyone and wakes up un-hung-over and ready to go go go! Produces the Stones and knows a rundown house on a back alley where an Italian granny-lady makes the world’s best ricotta. You know a guy like that, right? Neither do I.

"I'm not fucking my daughter!" Courtesy Fox Searchlight

It’s the performance of the year and of Fiennes’ career. From Schindler’s List to In Bruges, Fiennes played a bubbling volcano, a seething mass of repression. Here, the lava spews. He’s a conniving prick and totally upfront about it. Fiennes’ frantic, scampering dance around the villa gives the Stones’ Emotional Rescue more credit than it deserves, but should win Fiennes an Oscar.

He incarnates this universe of hard-earned license, individuality and id. Did these folks get world famous by being nice? Or putting anyone else first? This is a nest of lovely vipers. I mistook Splash for Bertolucci lite: a stylish, empty wallowing in the haut lifestyle – like Stealing Beauty. It turns out to be something much richer: an astute, merciless Pinteresque duel to the death.

Over love.

Though Bertolucci’s style informs every frame, the characters evoke Chabrol and even Hitchcock. The suspense derives not from the action, but the conversation. You have to pay attention. This sophisticated bunch lives for a multi-layered retort. They hide their venom in verbal cookies full of arsenic; indicating what they mean, never saying it outright. The truth hides in every deceitful word or ambiguous shrug as the non-stop camera whirls to the next exquisite landscape, naked ass or gyrating poolside supermodel. It’s compelling and at times exhausting, but irresistible.

Everyone’s feelings for everyone are complex, and, as Keith Richards told a judge fifty years ago, not concerned with petty morals. Johnson’s constantly cruel – always seeking the most furious response. Swinton’s superstardom’s brought her compassion. When Johnson attacks, Swinton responds with truly moving kindness. At some point, everyone behaves exactly as you thought they never would.

Splash is a remake of the 1969 decadent French nugget la Piscine.**** By ‘69 standards, Piscine’s as explicit and steamy as Splash, with va-va-voomy Romy Schneider languidly strolling naked by the pool or lolling around in bed. There’s one big difference: Alain Delon plays Schoenaerts’ role. Swinton’s nursing Schoenearts as he recovers from a half-hearted suicide attempt. Given Schoenearts’ sensitive reticence, you buy it. But Delon? He’s indestructible. So why title this version with a meaningless Hockney reference? Please see “camp, risible,” above.

The plot slowly emerges through the mists of glam. Fiennes came to win Swinton back. He brought his daughter as a honey-trap for Schoenaerts. That’s how these people roll. Then playtime ends and something terrible happens.

Guadagnino indulges in a deflating Hitichcockian conceit: a dim, fawning cop bedazzled by stardom. It’s the only point Guadagnino pounds with a hammer: the blind love of silly mortals lets the gods soar free. In the final shot, the gods realize they’ve escaped. They did horrible things. They learned unexpected lessons about their own corruption. But their luck held and they love one another all the more. A final, bitter triumphant smile makes all the plot and character elements suddenly cascade into order, like film of a collapsing Lego structure run in reverse. It may take that smile, and the clarity it brings, to realize this is the best film of the year. It only took me seeing it twice.

Uneasy even in mud.  Courtesy Fox Searchlight

 I Am Love was Guadagnino aping Visconti. He sought grandeur but lacked Visconti’s gravitas – who doesn’t? Splash is Guadagnino as Antonioni, finding profundity in the jet set with all their angsty solipsism. For Antonioni, alienation meant stillness. His characters, even when running, so vested in every gesture they seemed in slow motion. Living with their existential pain took so much effort. Not these folks. You can feel them fidget, vibrating with unease. That unease lingers long after the movie ends. Not the amazing clothes or the celestial light or the perverse bonding. What sticks is everyone’s unspoken terror that – despite all they’ve earned and been given – they’re flying too close to the sun.

* Lou Reed from the liner notes to Metal Music Machine

** Thanks Sarahjane Blum

*** Elvis Costello

****Amazon Prime


I Saw The Light

 Sony Pictures Classics

When Hank Williams set out to get famous, Hillbilly was a niche. His 35 Top Ten songs in only six years turned it into mainstream Country. Nonstop night-after-night gigs, the amphetamines that fueled them, the barbiturates that brought sleep afterward and the liquor that made life bearable in between triggered the heart attack that killed Hank – at only 29 – in the back of his Cadillac on a twolane blacktop on the way to another show. With his skinny elegant frame, bottomless Satanic eyes, pursed redneck mouth and astonishing bespoke cowboy outfits, Williams provided the (white) wild-ass prototype for all the Dionysian self-destructives who followed him into popular music.

Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams with the Drifting Cowboys Photo by Sam Emerson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

But Williams had something they – and pretty much every other songwriter in history – lacked: A genius for setting nursery rhymes of universal sadness and longing to jaunty, unforgettable melodies. Dude had some appetites on him, too, and the determination to indulge them. In other words, Williams was a Colossus, and now ripe for a biopic.

What shines, and makes the film worth seeing, is an immersive, mesmerizing star turn by English actor Tom Hiddleston. He perfectly captures Williams’ self-contained suspicion, damn-fool contrary country pride and unselfconscious joy at performing. Hiddleston sings Hank’s tunes himself. He’s credible and it’s a relief not to hear a dead man’s voice coming out of an actor’s mouth. Hiddleston's onscreen band plays and recorded using period instruments, amplifiers and techniques, guided by Nashville curmudgeon and self-appointed guardian of country-roots authenticity Rodney Crowell. The songs sound good.

Williams had outrageous style. One visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame will convince you he could match Miles Davis, Gram Parsons or Sly Stone for elegant flamboyance and that’s saying something. Hiddleston wears suits embroidered with giant musical notes and fringed white-satin cowboy shirts with natural insouciance. He ambles onstage in these deranged wonders as easy as if in his PJs – to the stage and stardom born. Hiddleston finds the inner fire that lit up Williams when he sang. Hank’s tragic cycle: Fully human only when performing, but the toils of performing killed him. It’s a formula most music-martyr films indulge, but seems hard to argue with here.

Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams Photo by Sam Emerson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Director Marc Abraham’s obsessively researched portrait never quite escapes biopic conventions. The production design captures the subtleties and status/class motifs of the clothing, cars, instruments, modes of speech, mannerisms and showbiz gestalts of the era, but all that detail feels oddly pro forma and unspecific. None of it illuminates Williams’ prodigious inner demons. He does stuff and folks around him shake their heads. “Whoo-eee, that boy’s a puzzlement – even to hisself !” is about as much of a character reveal as the screenplay provides.

Predictably, the story posits woman-trouble as the engine of Hank’s drinkin’, druggin’ & whorin’. That legendary whorin’ all takes place offstage; the multiple Williams’ descendants listed in the Thank You credits may account for this relatively sanitized saga. Elizabeth Olsen, despite her astonishing eyes (what Godard could do with her face!) never quite convinces as Hank’s hard-ass wife Audrey. She’s at least granted more depth than Maddie Hasson and Wren Schmidt. Though based on real folks, they come off as only window-dressing, underwritten story-fodder. For reasons never made clear or credible, Hank’s instantly smitten with one but not the other, even though the other will bear his child. The actresses compensate for their superficial roles by being made-up, done-up and coiffed to a fare-thee-well regardless of plot circumstances. Even the redoubtable Cherry Jones gets reduced to a stereotype – the dangerously over-protective southern mama.

(The mighty, mighty) Cherry Jones as Lillie Williams Photo by Sam Emerson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

In the opening shot, Hiddleston leans against a stool, singing acapella in an iconic but false-seeming pose. He’s bathed in shafts of beatific light. The camera circles as he sings. As the song comes to a close and the camera draws near, the light recedes to reveal the human face of this clearly angelic – that is, long-dead – figure. It’s the only expressive or metaphoric shot in a film of quotidian naturalism and sets an artificial tone. It’s the kind of moment producers impose on a finished picture they think doesn’t show its star as sufficiently starry or its subject as sufficiently mythical.

Abraham refuses, to his credit, to traffic in visual or narrative myth. Weirdly, though, he never fully exploits the genius of Michael Mann’s go-to cinematographer Dante Spinotti (Public Enemies, Heat; Manhunter). Abraham’s frames are simple prosceniums from which actors declaim, like expensive television. The absence of visual style and the awkward editing – especially of Hank achieving his lifelong dream of singing on the Grand Ole Opry – drag the story down. So does the labored device of cutting to B/W “interviews” of Hank’s collaborators.

The ending – uh, sorry: Hank died in his car – comes off frustratingly matter of fact. There’s little sense of untimely tragedy. As with other crucial moments, Abraham’s laudably sincere love of the music and of his subject cannot compensate for his pedestrian storytelling.


Neither Heaven Nor Earth  


New Directors New Cinema   

            Screening at the Walter Reade 3:45 Saturday 3/19 and at MOMA 3:45 Sunday 3/20 

A Film Movement Release   

Making the unreal real’s easier with CGI, but showing the monster always undermines the poetry. Just ask Rod Serling. Or, better yet, Edgar Allen Poe. Poe describes events, not the underlying cause, which events conceal and, in time, reveal. Metaphor is all the explanation you’re going to get. The Raven says: “Nevermore.” Any questions?

 First time director/screenwriter Clément Cogitore understands the tension between knowing and showing. He walks that tightrope to near-perfection. Though he frames his tale as a war story, Cogitore’s vested in Noir, and how noble impulses prove fruitless in a corrupted world. Cogitore’s subtle camera and intelligent screenplay combine to make Neither one of more thought-provoking, memorable and enjoyable films of the year – brainy, gritty and unpredictable.

 Cogitore offers no more clarification than is available to the boots on the ground. Those boots belong to a French army force guarding a remote, lethal valley in the Afghan boondocks. The landscape and lonely guard-shacks perched atop inaccessible ridgelines evoke Sebastian Junger’s fine documentary Restrepo. Neither captures Restrepo’s universe of soldier’s time-passing banter and instant, out-of-nowhere warfare. Cogitore reveals their lives and character, as did Restrepo, in telling details – who’s reliable; who’s a headcase; who’s trigger-happy. The soldiers are restless. They want a battle. They fetishize their weaponry, but every pointless sura with the local elders proves they have no power.

 Jérémire Renier embodies this frustration as French Captain Bonassieu, a staunch military man with the inner torments of a Noir protagonist. Bonassieu’s a new archetype of war hero. He recognizes the limits of his reach, defaults to compassion instead of violence and believes he can think his way out of most dilemmas. Afghanistan proves him wrong, of course.

 The story starts with bored soldiers and establishes the depth of their isolation, whether in their ridgeline shacks or their bristling base in the valley. The soldiers have cell phones and Skype and a nearby ancient village of civilians who laugh in their faces, call them filthy Christians and wish them dead. One night, the villagers climb an adjacent ridgeline and burn something in a huge-ass, ritual bonfire.

 The soldiers peer through night-vision goggles and infrared scopes, but the blaze washes out their technology. Here’s the first link in Cogitore’s powerful chain of metaphors. The French have the gizmos, but can’t parse the ancient world. They see in the dark, but remain blind.

After the bonfire, a French soldier disappears. Vanishes into thin air. Then another. Then, another. The Noir-faced captain assumes desertion or Taliban abduction. Bonassieu rips up the village to no avail. Everyone there knows what’s happening, and find his rage amusing. He sets up the usual useless protection against nocturnal forces: motion detectors, spotlights, sturdier walls. Bonassieu won’t admit it, but he’s scared shitless. His men are scared shitless. He shouts down the valley through a loudspeaker, asking the Taliban for parley. When they finally show up, guess what? The Taliban are scared shitless, too.

 And so was I.

I was scared shitless this weird, self-aware character study in the guise of a war movie was about to turn into supernatural horseshit. Happily, my fears were groundless. But if I explain why, I’ll give away the plot.

It’s a horror-movie and Afghanistan-movie trope to present Westerners and natives as embodying the rational and irrational in opposition. The trope states plainly or indicates that the natives possess inbred wisdom and inchoate chthonic powers the over-thinking, fair-playing Westerners will never – and really, shouldn’t want to – understand. Horror movies and Afghanistan movies present this binary as a threat to the very (Christian) soul of Westerners. If they embrace the local dark arts, their mortal selves will be in peril. This goes as far back as King Kong and appears as recently as American Sniper. Neither vests in this binary, but only to the point of illustrating the profound and unshakeable mutual hatred between invader and invaded. It escapes being colonialist propaganda – is there another Afghanistan war film that does? – by one simple expedient.

The awakened chthonic forces attack both sides with the equal force. This is the next link in Cogitore’s metaphor-chain. In a philosophically less complex film, the villagers’ bonfire would symbolize the locals unleashing their primitive mojo against which 21st Century industrialization proves powerless. Instead, Cogitore leaves no doubt that both sides evoked the demonic by their treatment of each other. It isn’t the villagers, per se, that are sick of their warrior bullshit. It’s the soul of the land itself.

The Captain is scared shitless

The Taliban employ a cruder, more homemade talisman against disappearance. In one of the most unsettling and memorable shots of recent times, they come around a corner of a mountain trail, tied to one another by long, dusty ropes. When the French soldiers see those ropes, their jaws drop and they look at each other all: “Sacré merde!” We’re in Poe territory now.

The Taliban leader calls to the Captain: “Where are my men?” Bonassieu’s answers with the same question. Cogitore’s metaphors now define the action. He’s compressed the Afghan conflict to one query and its echo. Each adversary wants to know what the other’s done with his men. Neither can answer, because neither knows.

Cogitore’s formal rigor and control ensure nobody asks about the ropes. We see them. Everybody knows what they’re for. A more obvious director would cut to big whomping close-up of a rope around somebody’s ankle. But Cogitore never gilds the lily or cheats. He builds suspense without giving the game away. He relies on simple compositions, steady narrative rhythm, recognizable exploitation devices, moments you’ve never seen before and rich, credible characters, especially the Taliban commander. The story does not hide knowledge or clues from the viewer. The audience knows what the soldiers know and shares their what the fuck?

The two sides form a hair-trigger alliance. The seething hatred of the Taliban’s leader underscores his bafflement and terror. Heavy shit’s going down, or these groups would tear each other to shreds. As Bonassieu pursues increasingly deranged solutions, the fate of the disappeared becomes less important than the fact of their disappearance. It slowly dawns on everyone they ain’t coming back.

Cogitore builds wrenching claustrophobia from the building – and justified – panic of the French and the Taliban. Any second now, they might start blasting each other out of sheer frustration. That they don’t underscores the power of the mystery surrounding them. They’re too awe-struck to kill.  When they finally accept that greater forces are at play, neither offers camaraderie. The two squads drift apart, back to war, content to believe each suffered equally.

Jérémire Renier’s balanced performance – at times totally in control, at times berserk with frustration – fuels the tension. His understated charisma  vests in his struggle. Bonassieu may accept the power of the irrational, but his superiors sure won’t. To protect the mystery, he enacts an honorable solution to cover any administrative questions. The solution leaves his career in tatters. Bonassieu takes the blame, as he feels he should, but for what? His self-sacrifice in the face of the unknowable raises another metaphor of this war, of worthy ideals shredded for nothing.

Like a lot of recent debuts, Neither doesn’t end when it ought to, but tacks on two or three extraneous shots that weaken its power. Those are Cogitore’s only structural errors. Lesser directors would preach about the pointlessness of war or signpost every crucial moment or have someone monologue about how the rhythms of the unseen thwart human intention. Instead, Cogitore gets his Howard Hawks on and simply tells the tale.  

 Sacré merde!