‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Author J.D. Vance Responds To Critics Of The Netflix Adaptation

When his memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” stirred up debate about poverty, addiction, and other hot-button issues in 2016, author J.D. Vance weathered the cultural firestorm. Now a film version of his book, directed by Academy Award-winner Ron Howard and just released on Netflix, has sparked another round of impassioned critique and analysis — but the film almost didn’t happen.

“Initially, I didn’t want to actually make a movie out of the book,” Vance told me in a phone interview. “Because once you do, you lose creative control, and I was worried about that. But I really liked Ron, and I think he is a good person — though, of course, we don’t share the same politics.”

Reactions to the resulting film version of “Hillbilly Elegy” have been fiercely polarized — this is 2020, after all. Many reviews have called it “bland” and “caricatured,” while a minority have praised it as “heartfelt” and “absorbing.” Conservative New York Times columnist and National Review film critic Ross Douthat commented with a tweet showing how film critics versus audiences have scored the movie.

Few deny the power of how past Oscar-winners Glenn Close (as family matriarch “Mamaw”) and Amy Adams (as her daughter and Vance’s mother, Bev) portray compelling, three-dimensional characters. Only a director of Howard’s caliber, known for “Apollo 13” and “A Beautiful Mind” among countless other hit films, could land such A-list talent to carry this story of one small-town American family’s trials and triumphs.

Vance has taken critics in stride, appearing alongside Howard in several interviews, including on CBS and a half-hour talk hosted by the librarian of Congress. “Already I’m seeing people who share something in common with the story are having conversations about the film,” he told me. “Consequently, maybe they’re learning more about themselves or their families because of it.”

He recently co-founded Narya Capital, a Midwest-focused venture fund, although it’s clear he believes people are the greatest investment, particularly his wife Usha, their two sons, and their extended family. In an interview lightly edited for length, Vance discusses the personal stories behind his memoir, how Howard reimagined it in the film, and what he hopes people take away from it.

Hometown Feedback

How has your family and their community in Middletown, Ohio, responded to the film?

Vance: My family obviously saw this coming and has been part of the process in various ways. There’s always a little bit of reticence to open your life up to strangers and a little weirdness with all the random messages people send you.

The fact that your life story is out there and people are engaging with it, it makes you feel a little odd if you’re not used to being in the public eye, as most of my family isn’t. Overall, they have been supportive and happy with the movie. Family members are especially pleased with how Glenn Close portrayed Mamaw — from her look to her behaviors, she got it right. That was what was most important to us in the family.

Now, I haven’t taken a poll of Middletown. As with reactions to the book, there’s a mixture of people who identify with me and this story. Conversely, some people say, “Hey, I didn’t understand that. I’ve never seen that, and I don’t recognize that in my life.” So you have people who identify with it and others who think our particular story and family antics were unusual.

I’ve generally encountered people in Middletown who are excited about the book and now the movie. Occasionally, the most common gripe I hear is that they wish there was more of a positive portrayal of their city. Of course, it’s hard to get every perspective into a two-hour movie. But certainly, I understand where that’s coming from.

In the book, you portray people like Mamaw and your mother with nuance and grace, even though some of their choices clearly caused you heartache. How were you able to still learn from and appreciate them?

Vance: One of the things that writing the book forced me to do is think about my own choices, my mom’s choices, and my grandma’s life, and put it in more of a multigenerational context. When I was growing up, I constantly was asking myself: Why is this happening to us? What’s going on? Why are things so tough, so traumatic, so chaotic?

Then I started to peel back the onion of our own family a little bit. I recognized that a lot of these things preexisted me, preexisted my mom, preexisted even my grandparents. When this multigenerational story of struggle came into view, that’s where I found some answers. Thinking about my family in that context made me appreciate how hard their lives were.

Consequently, our own family, as chaotic as it was, was very often formed by forces and people that came before it. For all the struggle, there is also a significant thread of resilience in there. As much as things weren’t always easy for us, we survived. Some of us are thriving now.

It’s hard to look back on it as a purely negative story when so much good came from our lives then. Like anybody’s family history, it’s probably checkered and colored. Some people are more complicated than others, but you take the good with the bad, and you appreciate the good even as you try to analyze and understand the bad.

Adapting the Story for the Screen

That’s such a strong theme in the book: how parents and grandparents give an inheritance beyond just material things. It seems like director Ron Howard really took hold of that. What do you see that he brought to adapting your memoir?

Vance: I’m glad you got that out of the movie because that was part of the story that Ron Howard certainly wanted to tell. What was clear to me from the very beginning is that he saw this as a multigenerational story of struggle but also resilience. That’s sort of how I saw it, too. Consequently, when a guy really gets it, you start to ask yourself: Maybe he’s the right guy to adapt this into a movie?

He was very intentional to ask: What happens to a family across generations? How does a thing that happened to a grandkid, good or bad, trace back to something that happened two or three generations back? He decided to unpack those really interesting questions in this movie.

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Your book seeks to explore “hillbilly culture” — it’s right there in the title. Do you feel like that comes through in the film?

Vance: It’s definitely hard. A lot of what I try to do in the book is bringing a particular moment or detail about my own family into a broader context. At various points, I try to step back and analyze: Well, there was addiction in my family, but how common is addiction in the broader community? There was chaos and trauma in my family. How common is that among others?

Cultural analysis is hard to do with the movie because you don’t have a writer’s voice and you have limited time. You can say a lot more in 200-plus pages than you can in a film. Ron Howard’s movie gives some sense of what the community looked like, of what I was witnessing and seeing growing up. I think he did a good job of capturing the environment, mostly as a backdrop for one family’s multigenerational story.

By necessity, it is a different narrative than that in the book. In a lot of ways, a movie is a narrower format. It definitely has its benefits, but it’s not as conducive to teasing out some of those social or cultural commentary pieces.

The film depicts a scene of Mamaw’s simple sacrifice of a meal, prompting you to change your approach to school and other responsibilities. In real life, was there such a specific turning point?

Vance: There was not such a specific turning point in my life. Obviously, a movie dramatizes things. I never had a specific epiphany or a moment where I said, “All right, I’m gonna try to get my stuff together, start making better choices, and help my family out in the process.” It was more of an evolutionary process, including years later when I entered the Marine Corps.

A big piece of it was recognizing that Mamaw was sacrificing on my behalf. The people that you love are not just actors in your life, but they’re actively sacrificing to make it easier for you. When you have that realization, whether it comes in the moment or it comes over a lifetime, it creates a certain sense of indebtedness and responsibility.

For me, personally, it had a really empowering effect. That sense of duty and obligation was very meaningful to me, and it’s something I still carry around.

There’s a good measure of coarse language in the movie, some drug use, and scenes of domestic violence. Who do you see as the audience for this film?

Vance: Hopefully, the audience is people who have gone through similar things. The most rewarding parts of this process of writing the book, promoting it, and talking about it have been meeting people who have had similar experiences.

Whether they came from Appalachia, or from a tough family completely outside of that region, or maybe they’ve had their own experiences with elitism in higher education as I have, I hope people will watch “Hillbilly Elegy” and engage with it. But it’s an entertaining movie, so I’m sure the audience is much wider than I know today.

Truths That Don’t Disappear

Near the end of the film, the character J.D. says that by staying home, he won’t save anyone. At the same time, you and your wife have moved back to Ohio. Is there a tension between those two points in the story?

Vance: This is one of the core tensions of the book, of the movie, of my own life: You want to be as present as you can, but in a world with limited opportunities, you sometimes have to leave to give yourself a better life, at least temporarily. And I guess that’s the way I’ve resolved the tension for myself, is we do owe something to the places we came from. We do owe something to our communities and certainly to our families.

Today, my wife and I live in Cincinnati, which is the closest big city to Middletown, probably a 45-minute drive. It’s good that we could see family on Thanksgiving. As people joke, it’s close enough that you can see your family whenever you want to, but not so close that they pop in unexpected. For me, it was always really important to raise my kids near my family of origin. Home was always going to be southern Ohio.

But if you’ve got to leave your home and leave your family to make a life for yourself, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. I don’t think that we should judge that decision or judge that outcome. For me, the sense of indebtedness and obligation doesn’t disappear. Different people are going to act on that in different ways.

What do you hope viewers take away from watching “Hillbilly Elegy”? 

Vance: I hope people take away some empathy for the problem of addiction, which is unfortunately much more widespread in our society than a lot of folks like to think it is. It’s surprising that a lot of people think of my family of origin as especially chaotic or traumatic. Certainly, there were moments of drama.

The truth is: Addiction, family instability, and divorce are really common in our country these days, especially in this region, and I hope people who have never experienced those things watch the film and gain a sense of empathy. Hopefully, after watching the movie, people who have experienced those things have some excuse to talk about it or think about their own experiences in a new way.

One person recently told me that it was very cathartic because they watched it with their family and then they had a really honest conversation afterward about their own experiences with addiction and family instability. Similar to the book, this film is a conversation starter. It gets people thinking about their own families and their own lives in a way that can be constructive. Bringing people closer together — that’s the ultimate goal.

Rated R for language throughout, drug content, and some violence, “Hillbilly Elegy” is now streaming on Netflix.

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Netflix’s Adaptation Of ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Doesn’t Do The Book Justice

Netflix’s star-studded adaptation of “Hillbilly Elegy” is a missed opportunity, but beggars can’t be choosers, I suppose. In director Ron Howard’s capable hands, J.D. Vance’s memoir is transformed from a complicated cultural commentary into a myopic personal narrative. That would be forgivable—laudable, even—if the film didn’t also look like a made-for-TV movie.

Glenn Close and Amy Adams deliver piercing performances as Vance’s mamaw and mother respectfully. What’s odd is how some scenes feel like selections from an Oscar-worthy film while most of the movie feels more like an after-school special. From the writing to the directing, it’s really cheesy, and not in a good way. Again, Close and Adams shine, and Howard treats their performances beautifully in a few key scenes. But they’re the exceptions.

Vance’s book is dotted with Putnam-esque analyses of cultural decay, using the author’s compelling path from Appalachia to Yale as a way of putting a human face on the trends identified by Charles Murray and other social scientists. It was a controversial effort, even in conservative circles, but given that Vance tricked droves of educated elites to read about and empathize with the country’s suffering center, his project was certainly a valuable one.

Despite its narrow focus on Vance—and weirdly low quality—Netflix’s “Hillbilly Elegy” does, at least, also ask viewers to consider the plight of Appalachia, of working class people in the throes of addiction and divorce and civic decay. That alone seems to have been enough for progressive reviewers to give the film low marks. One such writer complained that the film is objectionably insistent on personal responsibility.

That’s laughable because the film isn’t coherent enough to be insistent on any broader message at all—other than Vance’s personal path to success. There’s little to no emphasis on his community. The film lacks the sense of place that his memoir crafted carefully.

I’m admittedly among the conservatives who regularly chide Hollywood for paying far too little attention to stories like Vance’s, people who know and empathize and understand these experiences, which are so essential to understanding our politics right now. The decision Netflix, Howard, Close, and Adams made to take up this project is certainly a heartening one.

It shouldn’t have been controversial but, of course, it was. That, perhaps, explains why a memoir that usefully and purposefully sought to explain cultural patterns that rankle the left was diluted into the “Hillbilly Elegy” of Howard’s lackluster rendering.


Netflix’s ‘Rebecca’ Is An Unremarkable Adaptation Of An Excellent Story

Netflix’s “Rebecca” is a bad dream from which audiences will quickly want to wake — not because it’s frightening (it isn’t) but because of its dreadful dullness and waste of serious potential and talent.

The film, based on the novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, follows the unnamed Mrs. de Winter, the second wife of a wealthy widower, as she grapples with settling into her new marriage and the sense of being haunted by the omnipresence of her husband’s late first wife, the seemingly perfect Rebecca. There is a certain irony that a film focusing on a woman worried that she will never live up to the memory of her predecessor is a pale imitation of its source material.

How did Ben Wheatley, the director of the dark, atmospheric, and engaging “Kill List,” “Down Terrace,” and “High-Rise,” manage to suck all of the gothic elements and excitement from the classic horror romance “Rebecca”? Netflix’s new romantic mystery is a serviceable if dull adaptation of the classic novel, but it strips away any of the charm or personality that elevates the material above any of the blandly dark romances. 

The central problem with the adaptation is an identity crisis: The film does not appear to know what it wishes to be — a gothic thriller or a grand romance? In refusing to commit to either, it fails in both senses, providing only a lukewarm treatment of both. The treatment of much of the runtime as a charming love story destroys any momentum or suspense built by the scenes attempting to capture the novel’s tone, leaving a confused output. 

The cast is as variable as the tone, with both genius examples of perfect casting and actors ill-suited for their roles. The film is centered around the unnamed narrator and protagonist, Mrs. de Winter, played with charm but little substance by Lily James. James is certainly a gifted actress and has been excellent in other films and TV shows, but she brings very little to her character, leaving her as a relatively depthless black slate. 

Kristin Scott Thomas was the ideal selection for the villainous Mrs. Danvers. Her balance of stoic propriety and menace is phenomenal. The devotion to the late Rebecca is palpable in each scene. Thomas’s performance in a climactic moment of shocking evil toward the protagonist elevates the lackluster writing and direction, providing one of the few genuine moments of tension and excitement. 

Armie Hammer is likewise wonderful as the enigmatic love interest, Maxim. His dashing good looks and effortless charm give the character a natural appeal, which contrasts nicely with his bursts of cruelty. The shift of Maxim near the end is somewhat out of nowhere, but that is more the fault of the script and direction than his performance. 

It is an immense task for anyone to step into the shoes of Alfred Hitchcock, but the creative team behind this offering should have been more than up for the job, with credits on films and series that could and ought to have served as inspiration for “Rebecca.”

Director of photography Laurie Rose, who has worked on all of Wheatley’s previous films, served as cinematographer on the miniseries “London Spy,” which mixed romance, tension, and mystery in the manner which ought to have been applied to this film.

Clint Mansell, another frequent collaborator of Wheatley, wrote a fine if forgettable score. While it didn’t soar to the gorgeous heights of “Requiem for a Dream” or reach the dramatic potential of “Moon,” the music suited the tones nicely. The main problem with the score is not inherent to the music itself but rather a factor of the greater tonal issues. 

The “Rebecca” remake is perfectly enjoyable in a mindless way, if you’re just seeking an unremarkable period romance with some mystery to give the illusion of tension. If you’re seeking anything that comes close to capturing the essence of the novel, however, you’d be much better served staying with the original.


New ‘Zappa’ Documentary Seeks Fresh Converts To Music Legend’s Cult

Although he departed this Earth some 27 years ago, Frank Zappa continues to both fascinate and befuddle. He fascinates because of the sheer brilliance of his guitar playing, his compositional skills, his astute and often biting satire and parody, and his invaluable ability to put together some of the most stellar band lineups of the rock era.

He befuddles, because, let’s face it, some of his lyrical output is little more than puerile scatology, often misogynistic and, frankly, and worst of all, devoid of imagination. His music, however? More often than not, it’s challenging and sublime.

From the rearview mirror, it’s obvious Zappa the artist would have been well-served by a creative partner or professional editor who might’ve been able to dissuade the main Mother of Invention from some of his more crass career lowlights. It’s to the detriment of his legacy that no such influence materialized.

On the other hand, Zappa’s headstrong independence was also one of his greatest artistic accomplishments. His relative success as an independent artist blazed trails for many, yet, by the time he formed his own record company in the late 1970s, he had already established himself on such labels as Verve and Warner Bros/Reprise, United Artists, and had helmed his Straight and Bizarre imprints.

Unsurprisingly, no substantial subjective criticism of Zappa appears in the latest documentary covering his personal life and career. Set to come out Nov. 27 and simply titled “Zappa,” this Magnolia release is helmed by “Bill & Ted” actor and documentary filmmaker Alex Winter.

As these types of passion projects go, Winter’s documentary delivers and is a must-see for true Zappa fans if, for nothing else, the heretofore unseen home footage of Zappa with his family, working with the all-female GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously), as well as intimate scenes of Zappa with the group that put him on the map in the mid-1960s: the Mothers of Invention.

The film also serves as a decent, although far from perfect, intro for the uninitiated Zappa fanatic. Indeed, if you’re not already onboard the Zappa train, this documentary won’t provide you a first-class boarding ticket.

Celebrity Encomiums

Included in the roster of talking heads gathered to deliver respective encomiums are Steve Vai, Ruth Underwood, and Alice Cooper. For the casual music fan who may not have been aware, Cooper’s recording career received a tremendous boost signing on to Zappa’s Straight label.

That said, late 1970s band members Adrian Belew, Terry Bozzio, and a host of other extremely talented musicians are some of the noteworthy collaborators missing in action. As a catalog of Zappa’s influences, “Zappa” does a fair job, but is not nearly as extensive as the 2010 documentary “The Freak Out List.”

What Winter’s does well, however, is postulate why Zappa seemed so intent on violating middle-class decorum throughout much of his recording career; namely, a bust, brief incarceration, and seizure of allegedly pornographic audio recordings by the San Bernardino vice squad and an adolescent fascination with genuinely blowing stuff up.

The word “genius” gets tossed around quite a bit, as is the custom in most celluloid tributes to fallen rock stars. Although tantalizing song fragments abound, there’s little critical context presented to convince the uninitiated Zappa freak of the frequent assertions of Zappa’s musical genius.

Early Mothers albums receive relatively short shrift as well. Focus on the third Mothers of Invention album, “We’re Only in It for the Money,” squanders much of its discussion on the sleeve design and whether its lampoon of the Beatles’s “Sgt. Pepper” cover might spark legal recourse. Left out are the many reasons no self-respecting music collection should be without a copy of perhaps the most brilliant skewering of the counterculture ever committed to vinyl.

That Zappa could so effectively stand outside the Summer of Love to lambaste it so hilariously and effectively should’ve come as no surprise as he and his band had devastatingly tackled the media, the White House, and America at large on their two preceding albums, “Freak Out” and “Absolutely Free.”

Not that you would glean such an impression from Winter’s film, but the first three Mothers albums constitute a trifecta of 1960s American parody never before or since equaled in popular music.

Classic Instrumental Albums – And Ex-Turtles

As the 1960s waned, Zappa, with and without the Mothers, moved more into an instrumental territory, releasing albums with complex instrumentation and kooky titles, including “Lumpy Gravy,” “Burnt Weeny Sandwich,” and what has rightly been deemed a classic, 1969’s “Hot Rats.”

The dawn of the 1970s, however, witnessed a new version of the Mothers, featuring former Turtles Flo and Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan) on vocals. Not much consideration is granted this era in Winter’s film, but it should be noted this incarnation of the band displayed much of the freedoms somewhat curtailed in Zappa’s recorded output of the previous decade.

While some of the material has aged well, much of it today smacks of pushing the envelope of decency too far in the wake of Lenny Bruce (who, incidentally, was once signed to Zappa’s Straight label) and other comics who refused to work “clean.”

All the while, Zappa developed his guitar and compositional mastery and even managed a return to cultural parody in his late 1970s output. By the 1980s, he had even scored a massive hit, “Valley Girl,” with his daughter Moon Unit, which is given ample consideration in the documentary. It would have been beneficial, however, for the documentary to use clips that show exactly why so many hardcore music fanatics remain infatuated with Zappa’s music.

Zappa vs. the PMRC

Valuable screen time is given to Zappa’s battle against the Parents Music Resource Center and the organization’s attempts to impose a rating system on the music industry. Ultimately, Zappa lost. But, instead of the brief mention this episode truly deserves, the documentary presents Zappa as a hero for the First Amendment and all things celebrating freedom. Then, as now, this father of two daughters wonders how alerting parents to the increasingly offensive lyrical content of rock and rap music in the early 1990s crosses over into “censorship.”

Where “Zappa” shines is in the scenes bookending the film. The film’s opening sequence captures his sentiments before his final live performances in Prague to celebrate the Czech Republic’s newly established freedom from Soviet rule. His remarks to an adoring crowd serve to welcome their country’s re-entry into the free world and are worthy of inclusion in any textbook covering the end of the Cold War. Unfortunately, viewers don’t see or hear any of the music performed from those evenings.

At more than two hours, “Zappa” is a lengthy introduction to his life and musical career. If it inspires viewers unaware of his music to delve into his extensive catalog (which has more than doubled since he passed away in 1993), it serves a valuable purpose that may well be noble. For the rest of us, “Zappa” is time well spent with one of the most idiosyncratic and talented musical artists of the 20th century.


Sean Connery’s Masculinity Was In A League All Its Own

In Sean Connery’s final film appearance, the disastrous “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” (2003), in which he played Allan Quatermain, the great white hunter who inspired Indiana Jones, audiences didn’t roll their eyes or sarcastically snicker at the sight of the 73-year-old actor swatting much younger actors like flies.

That was the source of Connery’s appeal. The actor, who died Oct. 31, 2020 at the age of 90, was always larger than life and indestructible. It was for this reason that he could not effectively play ordinary characters. His Bond-era film, “A Fine Madness” (1966), bombed at the box office because Connery was not convincing as a victimized eccentric.

He was at his best as towering figures, not only as the sexy, sinister James Bond but as Robin Hood and Indiana Jones’s equally capable father. In the latter role, as Henry Jones Sr., not even coke-bottle glasses, a bald head, and a snow-white beard could hide his machismo. He didn’t need Indiana’s pistol and bullwhip to get audiences to accept that he too could knock Nazis about.

Not even his undisguised Scottish brogue made his turn as a Soviet sea captain unconvincing in “The Hunt For Red October” (1990). Connery made you believe he was capable of outrunning and defeating the Soviet submarines in pursuit. He was so super-humanly cool that Connery was one of the few actors to make a Soviet army figure admirable.

It was because of these qualities that Connery was timeless in the same way as Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. Connery had a bald head like Bogart and capped teeth like Gable, linking him to these stars. Like them, he endured no matter the trend, such as in the 1970s when ordinary ethnic schlubs such as Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino were in vogue. Hoffman and Pacino play victims; Connery, with his 6’4” frame and ability to move like a cat, never could.

The First Bond

Although his Oscar-winning role as the street-wise Irish cop in “The Untouchables” (1987) could be considered his finest moment on film, Connery will forever be remembered as the first James Bond.

Connery always dismissed Bond as unworthy of the requirements of a trained actor, but it should be remembered that Connery built a character from the sketchy details of Ian Fleming’s one-dimensional books. Fleming didn’t give an actor much to go on in his tales. The literary Bond was plagued with self-doubt and was often stupid and fussy — over meals and drinks and clothes — the last of which, in the context of the times, was sexually suspect.

Connery took the bare bones of this characterization and gave audiences a suave killer with an interesting cruel streak. It is only now with the arrival of arguably Connery’s equal, Daniel Craig, that Bond has returned to his nasty roots. Connery and the Bond directors tried to leaven the brutality and obvious misogyny — it was routine in his Bond films for him to rough up women — with witty quips.

It wasn’t really the humor and arched eyebrows that won over audiences. It was Connery’s undeniable cool and indestructibility. No matter how brutally he killed, Connery got away with it because, in that cliched phrase, “men wanted to be him, and women wanted to be with him.”

Even his violence had a cool side. His Bond was capable of shooting people in the back and breaking a man’s neck with a fire poker, as in “Thunderball,” but he could be cool in how he creatively killed the villains. In “Goldfinger,” for instance, he knocked over an electric fan that fatally shocked a villain in a bathtub full of water.

Much of Connery’s Bond portrayal could have come from his working-class boyhood in his native Scotland, a country for which he labored all his life toward achieving national independence. Reportedly requiring a great deal of training in Bond’s gentlemanly manner of Savile Row suits, and knowing the perfect wine to complement the fish, Connery kept the qualities of the Scottish stereotype: physical hardiness and a dangerous temper that the other actors offered the Bond role could not have matched. The mind boggles now over how Fleming wanted Cary Grant or David Niven in the role.

Not as Cool as Connery

Connery’s achievement as Bond is even more apparent when you compare him to the actors who inherited the role. Roger Moore could be icily cool, but he was simply too nice and ordinary to make a convincing Bond, relying instead on campy humor. Timothy Dalton’s brief turn as Bond reverted back to the books, and he played Bond as an alcoholic burnout, vulnerable in a way Connery could not be. Pierce Brosnan had Moore’s looks and Connery’s cruel streak, and he embraced political incorrectness, but the scripts heavy-laden with gadgets and quips defeated him.

Only Craig has conjured up Connery’s dangerous side, but he lacks Connery’s unflappable cool, which might be deliberate. Craig’s appeal is in how he bulldozes his way through the adventures, taking very personally every blow dished out to him.

When John Wayne died in 1979, an obit writer said he thought Wayne was too tough to die. The same could be said of Connery. To my generation, it is a physical jolt, and in our age of political correctness about masculinity, he will be missed.


Watch These Nontraditional Horror Movies For A Spooky Halloween

Happy Halloween! With most of the country still predominately shut down, it’s likely that costume parties and trick-or-treating will not be available for most this year. This means that one major Halloween tradition will be more important than ever: scary movies. While there is a plethora of traditional monster, slasher, and gore films to fill out the season, what about options for those less interested in traditional genre offerings? 


Do you like to laugh while being scared? If so, horror-comedy is a great way to allow humor to diffuse the tension. This is a hard balance to strike, due to the polarity of laughter and fear, but when done right, films can scare and amuse in the same scene. This is especially effective when handled with a self-aware edge.

Horror-comedy sounds like a bit of an oxymoron. One genre is intended to terrify, the other to make you laugh. The relative extremes of both, however, can combine beautifully to make films that are equal parts frightening and hilarious. Some of my favorite horror movies have had comedic edges while still bringing legitimate scares. It’s a tough tonal balance, but these films achieve it beautifully.

It would have been so easy for “Jennifer’s Body” to be phoned in and boring, another paint-by-numbers flick about a man-eating demonic cheerleader. That’s exactly what audiences and critics viewed it as when it first came out, boasting a tragic 45 percent on rotten tomatoes. In recent years, however, it has gained cult status, and deservedly so. Diablo Cody, fresh off winning an Oscar for “Juno,” penned a script that is filled to the brim with quips and fun characters, and Megan Fox delivers the only good performance of her career thus far. 

While the first “Evil Dead” film has a charming, campy quality, it’s a disturbing straight horror. The closer of the trilogy, “Army of Darkness,” is more of a fantasy action-comedy. The middle entry, “Evil Dead II,” is the perfect example of how horror-comedy can excel in both genres. Bruce Campbell stars as the arrogant, selfish, charming everyman who must face the demon versions of his friends after they stumble upon an evil book in the cabin-in-the-woods they rented for spring break. Sam Raimi’s direction, Campbell’s performance, and fantastic creature design turn this film into a masterpiece of horror and humor. 

Self-Aware and Satirical

Sometimes, the clichés of the horror genre can get tiring. The genre is permeated with strict and obvious rules and conventions, which allows formulaic slasher films to be pumped out with dull regularity. Some, however, comment brilliantly on the formula functions in both fiction and society, while still providing earnest scares and engaging stories. 

After creating one of the most unique and iconic movie monsters, Freddy Krueger, and solidifying the now-clichéd slasher tropes, Wes Craven turned them on their heads with “Scream,” a satire in which the central teens, chased by a masked killer, are all well-aware of how slasher movies work, having spent their adolescences watching them. “Scream” both critiques and plays into the classic tropes, allowing the characters to behave in a believable manner even when making terrible choices. The twist ending is one of horror’s best. So… “Do you like scary movies?”   

If you’re tired of the predictable formula of watching a jock, a slut, a nerd, a stoner, and a virgin get picked off one by one by some supernatural entity in a remote cabin in the woods, “Cabin in the Woods” is the perfect film for you. The staid genre conventions are lampooned beautifully by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard in a film that follows two bureaucrats (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) setting up the cabin death trap as part of a ritual to appease vengeful gods.

The film satirizes the genre conventions by having the bureaucrats manipulate the teens into out-of-character and moronic decisions. This movie is a fun and clever watch with a wild premise that is just crazy enough to work. Plus, you can see a pre-fame Chris Hemsworth as the book-smart, thoughtful team leader, who is inevitably reduced to the dumb jock stereotype.

In horror, sex typically equals death, especially for teens in slasher films. “It Follows” makes this rule literal, following a teenage girl, Jay, who finds herself pursued by an entity set on murdering her, one that is only passed on through sex. Is it a metaphor for STDs? Moral panics? A cautionary tale about the dangers of promiscuity? Regardless of meaning, it’s a creative twist on the typically stale slasher genre and a thoroughly enjoyable movie.

Psychological Horror

Sometimes, you’d prefer something that makes you think, something that gets under your skin rather than playing to instinctual fears. The scares in these films build slowly, relying on atmosphere, tension, and dread to achieve their effect. 

No one plays with the psychological and increases tension better than Alfred Hitchcock. If you’re looking for something traditional, you couldn’t go wrong with any of his classics: “Psycho,” “The Birds,” “Rear Window,” “Strangers on a Train,” “Vertigo,” and many others.

However, special mention must be made for the absurdly underrated “Rope,” my personal favorite of his works. Seemingly captured in one shot, the movie takes place at a dinner party, in which the hosts had just committed a murder and hid the body in the chest they are using as a table.

Jimmy Stewart plays excitingly out of type as the murdering pair’s teacher, whose intellectual exercises in discussed amorality might have inspired their wicked act. John Dall and Farley Granger are delightfully frightening as the murderers, based loosely on Leopold and Loeb, and their chemistry and performances brought to life a truly twisted pair and a fascinatingly unhealthy relationship.

A masterclass of character development, suspense, and tension, it is an absolute masterpiece, taking place in real-time and pioneering the one-take film that would later create movies such as “Birdman” and “1917.”

If Hitchcock was the master of suspense and defined the psychological thriller and horror, David Fincher continues his legacy, crafting compelling and exciting films on everything from Facebook’s founding to disaffected young men punching each other to protest materialism in the late ’90s. Of his oeuvre, “Se7en” and “Zodiac” best capture the Halloween spirit.

“Se7en,” directed by Fincher, follows two detectives in their quest to catch a serial killer who is selecting victims based on the seven deadly sins. It’s haunting, disturbing, and compelling, with a gut-punch of an ending. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman give stellar turns as the respectively idealistic and world-wearied cops, and Kevin Spacey is chilling as the serial killer. Some of the kills are deeply disturbing — the film is not for the faint of heart — but it tells a story that is equal parts devastating and intriguing.

“Zodiac” takes the serial killer story and flips it in a different direction. Rather than focus on the cops, like in “Se7en,” or understanding the killers, as in the excellent Netflix series “Mindhunter,” the movie tells the true story of newspaper cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose collaboration with reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) in covering the case of the Zodiac Killer leads him to an obsession that will overtake his life.

It feels almost reductive to recommend “The Shining,” as the Stanley Kubrick behemoth is widely considered to be one of the best horror movies of all time. Watching Jack Nicholson’s slow descent into madness is an absolute treat. For so long and slow a movie, it never eases the tension once, resulting in a brilliant final product even non-horror fans will adore.

The plot of Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” sounds more like a drama than a horror movie. A young woman named Dani, played by Florence Pugh, joins her emotionally distant boyfriend and his friends on a trip to Sweden to witness a commune’s midsummer festival. Dani is left traumatized from the death of her parents and sister in a murder-suicide perpetrated by her mentally ill sister. The darkness surrounding the commune and their cult-like practices is slowly unfolded, but witnessing Dani’s indoctrination is the true horror.


‘Clouds’ Spotlights Catholic Family’s Struggles With Teen’s Terminal Illness

In the same week America got to know the remarkable Midwestern Catholic family of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, the biggest movie release this weekend spotlights another faith-driven Midwestern family.

Premiering today on Disney Plus, “Clouds” recounts the story of Zach Sobiech, one of four siblings raised in a Catholic home in Lakeland, Minnesota. After being diagnosed with osteosarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer, the teenager is determined to live out his dreams no matter how long he has left.

Director Justin Baldoni (“Five Feet Apart”) helms the biopic, after having produced a documentary about Zach’s journey for his “My Last Days” online series. “I can’t think of a better time than right now to release a movie like this,” said Baldoni in a recent interview. “It gives people a chance to meet Zach, hear his music, and see the choices he made when he went through it.”

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Based on the memoir of Zach’s mother Laura Sobiech, “Clouds” highlights Christian faith in a way rarely seen in Disney films. “One of my prayers throughout this whole experience has been: ‘Lord, you open doors and we’ll walk through them,’” she said in a phone interview. “That is very much what has happened.”

Upon learning of his terminal diagnosis, Zach took up songwriting and quickly achieved cultural impact — including a No. 1 hit iTunes single in 2013. A-list actors and artists took notice. Bryan Cranston, The Lumineers, and Jason Mraz (among others) boosted the song and gave tribute to Zach.

As a consultant on the script, Laura worked to ensure it reflected reality rather than make their journey seem unattainable. “I want people to see that our lives are messy,” she said. “We didn’t do things perfectly. We fought. We wrestled. Despite us, God chose to use our family and Zach’s story in this amazing way.”

Finding Connection During Unyielding Stress

For Sobiech, it felt surreal to travel from her small hometown — on a major studio’s dime — to the movie shoot in Montreal, Canada. Before filming, actors assembled for the first time for a table read of the script grounded in her memoir.

Hollywood stars with significant past credits sat around the conference room table: Neve Campbell (“Scream” franchise) portrays Laura, Tom Everett Scott (“That Thing You Do”) her husband Rob, Fin Argus (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”) their son Zach, and Sabrina Carpenter (“Adventures in Babysitting”) his best friend.

Their run-through of the draft script revealed a pivotal part of the story did not resonate. “The scene where Rob and I are arguing on the deck of the house, it just didn’t ring true,” said Laura Sobiech. “It wasn’t anything near what we would have said.” After the table read, director Baldoni huddled up with Campbell, Scott, and screenplay writer Kara Holden, all discussing how that scene between husband and wife needed work.

As a mother of four, Sobiech is used to speaking up when situations require it. “I just kind of butted in and said, ‘Well, do you want to know what we were really fighting about?’ They all looked at me and said: ‘Yeah, we do!’” she recounted.

Sobiech spent the afternoon guiding Holden as she rewrote the scene, with input from the actors. From years of personal experience, the Minnesota author said it was vital to knock down the assumption that caregivers usually choose to lean on one another.

“You’ve got two very fragile people going through a really hard thing,” she said. “When you know you are both going through the same emotions, you don’t want to burden your spouse with the heaviness you’re feeling. You end up sort of closing off and carrying it all by yourself, and you have to figure out a path back to each other.”

The Spirit and the Flesh

Following Zach’s diagnosis, the film depicts how the Catholic family sought divine intervention for his healing in addition to medical treatment. Thanks to an acquaintance who paid their way, the Sobiechs traveled to the world’s most famous healing shrine in Lourdes, France.

“Even then, I thought: We don’t really need to go to France to get a miracle,” recalled Sobiech. “We wrestled with what to expect. What are we really looking for? Are we setting ourselves up? What’s the purpose of this?”

A pilgrimage to Europe provided needed respite for the close-knit family facing trauma. “Lourdes is like coming in from a freezing cold blizzard into a warm, cozy house and getting wrapped in a blanket,” she said. “For us, it was this tranquil, peace-filled place to retreat.”

Nothing evidently supernatural occurred. Yet scenes at Lourdes are presented with remarkable reverence for a mainstream film, seeming to show some bigger story unfolding. “I did ask God to physically heal Zach,” said Sobiech. “But I also asked for his grace, that his hand would carry us through whatever would happen. And I think that was the answer we received.”

While viewers see their spirits were willing, realities of the flesh are also close at hand. The film earns its PG-13 rating through an F-bomb yelled by an exasperated parent and a romantic scene between teenagers. The faith-guided mother is sensitive to how families with young kids are vigilant about content even in an inspirational movie.

“Certainly if that’s not something you want your children to see, then they shouldn’t see it,” said Sobiech. “The scene ends before it gets too steamy, and it doesn’t go where one might think. That’s part of the teenage experience. It shows that Zach, a 17-year-old boy who was dying, was real.”

The Silver Lining of ‘Clouds’

One of few original films released thus far on Disney Plus, “Clouds” fits alongside their library of true-life biopics. His mom noted Zach “loved the spirit of Disney movies” their family watched together. “‘Remember the Titans’ was one of his favorites,” said Sobiech. “Especially at a time like this, it’s important to find something that’s uplifting.”

His legacy lives on in his music and other tangible ways. As of this week, the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund has raised more than $2 million to research better treatments and even a cure for the rare bone cancer.

“This story is about hope and love,” said director Justin Baldoni. “But as much as we want to touch peoples’ lives, we want to freakin’ end and find a cure for osteosarcoma and children’s cancer. Because we don’t need to lose another bright soul.”

Active in their community while still busy raising kids and now one grandchild, Laura and Rob Sobiech consider it providential the film is releasing during this contentious season. “I hope it does the same thing as Zach’s song ‘Clouds,’” she said, “Which is to inspire people to think about the deep things in life and leave them feeling hopeful.”

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Based on the memoir by Laura Sobiech, “Clouds” premieres today on Disney Plus.


Blue Checkmarks Are Hurling Insanely Racist Remarks At Gal Gadot Over Her Perfect Casting As Cleopatra

Gal Gadot is set to play Cleopatra in an upcoming movie about the Queen of the Nile. Patty Jenkins, who also directed Gadot in “Wonder Woman,” will direct the biopic.

Gadot herself pitched the idea of a Cleopatra biopic. “Cleopatra is a story I wanted to tell for a very long time,” she tweeted, adding that she hopes “to tell her story for the first time through women’s eyes.” Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt from 51 B.C. to her death, a few years after she and her Roman lover Mark Antony were defeated in the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.

But some blue checkmarks on Twitter rushed to condemn Gadot for everything from being Israeli to being “too pretty.” Journalist Sameera Khan called Gadot “bland looking,” adding “shame on you, Gal Gadot. Your country steals Arab land & you’re stealing their movie roles.”

Twitter warriors who condemned Gadot’s casting as racially insensitive turned around and targeted her for her ethnicity as an Israeli woman. Asad Abukhali, a professor at California State University, quipped, “[W]hy not Netanyahu as Mark Antony?”

Hella Samar, who has written for Forbes, posted a link to the announcement of Gadot’s casting with the message: “We don’t want the colonizers portraying ANY roles.”

Writer Randa Jarrar called Gadot a “zionist” and suggested fans “rewatch the Liz Taylor version” instead. (She apparently has no problem with the fact that Elizabeth Taylor was born in England to parents from the American Midwest?)

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, a Democratic candidate who ran unsuccessfully for New Jersey’s 6th Congressional District, criticized Gadot for “her vocal support of the Israeli Defense Forces’ actions in Palestine” and suggested Gadot supports “the oppression of women and girls.”

Morgan Jerkins, a New York Times bestselling author, likened Gadot’s skin to a “brown paper bag.” She suggested casting a darker-skinned actress would be “a bit more historically accurate” before admitting that Cleopatra’s father was Macedonian Greek and her mother’s ethnicity isn’t definitively known.

As Jerkins admitted (and many Twitter users were quickly informed), Cleopatra was neither black nor ethnically African. She was descended from Ptolemy I Soter, a Macedonian Greek who was a general under Alexander the Great. Cleopatra’s father was Ptolemy XII. Historians aren’t sure who her mother was, as rulers often had children with multiple women, but she may have been Cleopatra V Tryphaena, Ptolemy’s wife.

Laeta Kalogridis, who is of Greek descent and is writing the script for the Cleopatra movie, reminded fans that Cleopatra was of Macedonian Greek heritage. Despite this, the media is latching onto the criticism Gadot has received. “Gal Gadot cast as Cleopatra, draws criticism as ‘very bland looking’ Israeli playing the queen of Egypt,” USA Today headlined. The Los Angeles Times also commented that “Gal Gadot has been tapped to play Cleopatra, and fan reaction is split.”

“Fan reaction was mostly skeptical,” the L.A. Times decided, citing a total of three Twitter accounts to support their conclusion.

Others complained that Gadot was too attractive for the role. “Regardless of ethnicity, gal gadot [sic] is simply too pretty to play cleopatra [sic]” wrote Alexandra Scaggs, a senior writer at Barron’s.

In reality, Gadot has much more in common with Cleopatra than the average Hollywood starlet does.

Like Cleopatra, who led ships into battle at Actium, Gadot has military experience. She spent two years in the Israeli Defense Forces as a combat trainer during the Israel-Hezbollah War.

The “Wonder Woman” star is bilingual, speaking her native Hebrew as well as English. Cleopatra spoke both Egyptian and Greek, as well as several other languages (some say she spoke up to 12).

Gadot also has an interest in foreign policy, a field Cleopatra excelled in. Before becoming an actress, Gadot was studying at Radzyner Law School of the IDC Herzliya. While she was there, she brushed off an early casting invitation because, in her words, “I’m studying law and international relations. I’m way too serious and smart to be an actress.”

Cleopatra is famous for her foreign policy with the Roman Empire and its leaders. Through boosting Egypt’s trading economy and allying herself with Mark Antony, Cleopatra tried to preserve Egypt’s independence in the face of the Roman Empire.

Additionally, Gadot’s homeland of Israel was annexed by the Roman Empire, as Egypt was following Cleopatra’s death. (Those calling Gadot a “colonizer” would do well to remember this.) In 70 A.D., after years of Roman occupation, the city of Jerusalem was burned by Roman forces. Historian Josephus Flavius tells of hundreds of thousands of Jews killed in the siege, and others sold as slaves.

Gadot has an even more personal understanding of the wrongs that have been committed against the Jewish people; both of her grandparents on her mother’s side were Holocaust survivors.

Elizabeth Taylor — who starred in the 1963 epic about the Egyptian queen — leaves big shoes to fill. But Gadot can bring a depth to the complex character of Cleopatra that few actresses in Tinsletown today can.


Jennifer Newsom’s Documentary Blames The American Founders For Democrats’ Failures

Jennifer Siebel Newsom pulls no punches with the title of her latest documentary: “The Great American Lie.” According to Newsom, America doesn’t fall prey to human error or mistakes in governance; no, America “lies” that it is founded on the idea of equality, which has allowed white males to hold down women and minorities for centuries. A collection of leftist pundits, journalists, and academics expound on this “lie.”

Inevitably, the documentary’s conclusion lands right on critical theory’s rocky shore: America’s founding at the hands of white males is so inherently racist and sexist that all negative life experiences can be attributed to it, and radical change is necessary to correct it. While Newsom never tells us what that radical change might entail, if viewers know anything about the French, Bolshevik, or Maoist revolutions, they should recoil in horror.

Siebel-Newsom is the wife of California Gov. Gavin Newsom and thus the self-titled gender-inclusive “first partner.” She scolds the United States for being greedy and uncaring, despite the American people’s astounding charitable donations.

Her experts are doing well, however, such as a school principal at more than $112,000 in salary, an NBC personality at more than $2 million per year, and of course the Newsoms themselves, reportedly worth $20 million from businesses financed by a close family friend and uber-wealthy Gordon Getty of Getty Oil. Perhaps the governor took business advice from other wealthy kin, like Nancy Pelosi.

It is, of course, all perfectly legal and commendable for a wealthy family to sponsor a bright young man in business and politics. It also looks an awful lot like an aristocracy — or a bipartisan, rent-seeking division of the informal Ruling Class.

With ominous bass notes sounding in the background, the film opens with two immigrant children walking down a rough street expressing hope for their American dream. We are led to believe that they are sadly naïve, as they sit in class wide-eyed with fright at the mention of Trump’s name.

For most of the documentary, as in this scene, Newsom’s argument rests on anecdotes and opinions. Yet, for every anecdote she presents, most of us, of course, can recount others. Like my friend who came to the United States legally with her mother and two brothers who are now doctors, and who is now a registered nurse.

Of course, it’s worth remembering that except for a brief interregnum with nominal Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger at the helm, her husband’s party has ruled California exclusively for the past 20 years. After the defeat of ballot initiatives at the hands of powerful unions, The “Governator” simply gave up trying, hired a Democrat chief of staff, and signed whatever that staffer put on his desk, including the ruinous Global Warmings Solutions Act.

So California, the sixth-largest economy in the world, should be by now an exemplar of income equality, right? Not so. The state currently leads the nation in poverty, homelessness, and unaffordable housing and energy costs.

Sadly, Newsom’s husband’s new plan reflects the state’s trend towards more of the same. He even proposes government-provided child care for every child’s first three years, as if K-12 were not adequate evidence of government failure, plus more regulation and redistribution elsewhere.

The data show income inequality, but the documentary never pinpoints the cause, instead suggesting more wealth redistribution. The film ignores that since the War on Poverty began in 1964, the U.S. government has redistributed trillions of dollars to combat poverty.

Even the Washington Post admits that, if not the exact figure of $15 trillion oft-cited by right-leaning sources, taxpayers have spent vast amounts on social programs in the past 60 years. Increases in government spending on schools have resulted in zero net gain in student performance. So why is more spending the answer? The school principal we follow rightfully rails against the “system” but never mentions competition to replace this very system.

The viewers would do well to compare and contrast the governor’s wonky, control-freak plans with the President Trump economy. Both men have had to adjust to new realities because of COVID-19 yet Trump’s plan has resulted in astounding growth, the lowest unemployment ever for black Americans and Latinos, and the ability for America to begin energy independence, making the Middle East oil card unplayable.

The film also bemoans the lack of affordable housing in the state. Again, Newsom uses the editorial “we” to ask why “we” have not provided adequate salaries or lower-priced homes for the middle and working classes. She does not address analysis by land-use experts like Joel Kotkin, who cites California as an evolving progressive feudal society, with lords like the Gettys and Newsoms living far better lives than the service workers below them. But cutting off the land from development means we have our precious open space, say the bien-pensant!

We have all seen this narrative before: the destruction of industry, the persistent poverty in the inner cities, the failures of government schools, constant violence in the schoolyard and the street. The blame — or the “lie,” as she puts it — is not in the nation’s founding. No, the lie is inherent in leftism and globalism.

A cynic might surmise that these films are designed not to answer questions of policy but to tug at the heartstrings, all to persuade another generation to fall for the same lie that leftists have been telling since Franklin Delano Roosevelt built and Lyndon Johnson perfected the welfare state machine. Sixty years of progressive policy has created more problems than it has solved.

The “first partner” might want to interview some of the CEOs she condemns for her next film and ask why they donate so heavily to politics, as well as to the social justice movements that burn and destroy our cities. What’s in it for them?

Increasingly, the American people know the answer to that question. The super-rich and the corporations lean left because corporations thrive under specially designed regulations and wages, with middle-class Americans on the losing end. More and more Americans are rejecting the shallow culture of victimhood and anti-Americanism as depicted in this film, and simply walking away.


Netflix’s ‘The Devil All The Time’ Is A Hellish Bore

“The Devil All the Time” is not a film as much as it is an audiobook with visuals. The new Netflix film, which follows cycles of vengeance, violence, and religious fanaticism within a few families in the post-World War II Midwest, is based on Donald Ray Pollack’s novel. With a dozen central characters, a two-hour runtime, and several subplots lasting over a decade, the movie is a rushed endeavor.

The film tells the story of first disturbed veteran Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), and then his son, Arvin (Tom Holland). Throughout their path, they come across serial killers, corrupt policemen, and a wicked preacher.

The film wildly over-relies on a narrator, who explains every single action as it happens, and moves the plot along from scene to scene. Some narration can be helpful, especially in a cinematic adaptation of a dense novel with many complications, but film is predominately a visual medium. Viewers would rather watch the actions happen, rather than hear about them after the fact.

Many major plot points are described rather than shown, which gets quite boring. Further, the narrator explains nearly every emotion experienced by the central characters, which ought to be instead demonstrated through the actors’ performances and the camerawork. It is far more gripping to witness a characters’ epiphany or emotional state, rather than have a disembodied voice hold your hand through each moment.

Much of the narration problem comes from the pacing. There is simply too much plot to fit into a two-hour movie. The story would have been much better as a miniseries. This change would have allowed each important character and story to have time to be fully realized, so that when important plot points occur, the audience knows and cares about them, and has a vested interest in the story’s outcome.

The acting ranges from passable to excellent, with no awful turns, but many lacking energy. Tom Holland is fine as the protagonist, effectively capturing his anguish and weariness. However, a major driving force for Arvin is rage, something Holland seems incapable of mustering, aside from one early fistfight when protecting his sister. The final 40 minutes of the film are exclusively driven by his violent quest for vengeance, but Holland struggles to capture his character’s mental state.

Bill Skarsgård was excellent at capturing the more unhinged aspects of Willard, truly selling the desperation and fanaticism needed. However, he never allowed viewers to see the calmer, more balanced side of the character, leaving the scenes intended to be dramatic bursts of passion feeling frustratingly par-for-the-course. Even in Willard’s contented scenes, he appears to be a ticking time bomb, just waiting for the latent instability to burst through, leaving the incredible later scenes with less of an impact on viewers.

Jason Clarke and Riley Keough were disappointingly bland as the serial killer couple Carl and Sandy, though much of their problems were in the script. Most of their scenes were spent committing murders, with their differing intentions and psychologies told to viewers by the narrator, rather than allowing the two talented actors to present any motivations.

Sebastian Stan is effectively loathsome as Sheriff Lee Bodecker, a corrupt cop and Sandy’s brother. He’s frustratingly one-note as a character, identified exclusively by his ambition and greed. Stan has previously been excellent as morally dubious characters, such as the tormented antihero Bucky Barnes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tonya Harding’s abusive ex husband in “I, Tonya,” and the duplicitous Carter Baizen in lurid teen drama “Gossip Girl.” It’s clear he attempted to bring some subtlety to the role, but there is nothing upon which to build.

Robert Pattinson was excellent as minor antagonist, Reverend Preston Teagardin, a corrupt and sexually exploitative minister. Pattinson struck a perfect balance between charismatic and menacing. His performance had shades of Paul Dano in “There Will Be Blood,” but Pattinson’s overcompensation is replaced with a predatory vibe which permeates the atmosphere every time he is on camera. He’s the type of villain who you simultaneously wish was around longer, yet viscerally crave for his comeuppance.

The true standout in the cast was Eliza Scanlan as Arvin’s pious step-sister, Lenora. She was one of the only virtuous characters in the film, but rather than be a one-dimensional ingenue, Scanlan imbues Lenora with startling humanity and depth. Her deeply limited screen time is a tragedy, as she absolutely lit up each scene she was in and elevated her section of the movie.

The biggest problem with the film is that we don’t have enough time with any of the characters, and therefore have no real reason to care about them. In place of showing us who the characters are and using scenes and dialogue to explain their relationships, everything is spelled out by the narrator, which wildly harms an audience’s ability to get invested in the story.

We’re told Lee loves his sister Sandy and cares about his reputation. We’re told about the marriage between Willard and Charlotte. We’re told about the complexities in Sandy and Carl’s relationship and serial killings. However, all of this happens off camera, with only a few brief scenes to demonstrate any sort of connection.

The only relationships that actually were demonstrated rather than explained were Lenora’s with Arvin and Teagarden. However, this comes as much down to Scanlan, Pattinson, and Arvin’s performances as the somewhat increased focus they are given.

Obviously, not every character and relationship in a film can gain substantial screen time and development, while other aspects must be covered by exposition. However, it’s a problem when every relationship and character is glossed over with a few sentences of narration, rather than actually showing the action. Further, in an ensemble cast where the plot is predominately driven by the interpersonal relationships, they need to be remarkably strong or the story falls flat.