Plus: The Movie Club 2005!

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
Dec. 29 2004 11:29 AM

Over Here, Oscar!

The Sea Inside, The Woodsman, Hotel Rwanda, The Assassination of Richard Nixon.

December is the month for limited releases of tough-to-watch films that showcase stellar performances—i.e., Oscar bait. The people who market these pictures aren't naive about the chances of such grueling fare in today's multiplex environment. They know that box office rests on awards and nominations, and so they send out thousands of screeners, work the phones, take out ads in Variety, and even throw V.I.P. cocktail receptions. They also have pretty good instincts about which performances are genuinely worthy of attention. In addition to Jamie Foxx in Ray, four male award contenders this season are Javier Bardem in The Sea Inside (Fine Line Features), Kevin Bacon in The Woodsman (Newmarket Films), Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda (United Artists), and Sean Penn in The Assassination of Richard Nixon (ThinkFilm). The politics saddens me—I hate ranking performances against one another—but I never tire of singing the praises of great actors.

Alejandro Amenábar's The Sea Inside recounts the true story of Ramón Sampedro, a quadriplegic who petitioned the Spanish courts to take his own life—an uphill battle in this country (even in Oregon soon, if the Bush administration gets its way) but especially quixotic in a staunchly Catholic one. In the film, Sampedro has lived for more than two decades—since his catastrophic swimming accident—in a bed in a room in his brother's home. Now he is forced to make the case for his death not only to the courts, but to the Spanish public (via invasive TV interviews), his family, his dishy lawyer (Belén Rueda), and a needy, unmarried young mother (Lola Dueñas) who has found a kind of spiritual renewal in his friendship. (Ramón is the only man she knows who is unlikely to screw her and then high-tail it out of there.)

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Is Amenábar too fluid for his own good? Abre los Ojos and The Others were evocative works, each with an original syntax and in a style that was perfectly calibrated to its subject. But I wonder if The Sea Inside doesn't move too slickly to do justice to its bedridden protagonist's anguish. It features fantasy flights over hills, through lush forests, to the sea for which Ramón longs. Those Steadicam sequences are extraordinarily beautiful, even scored with the overfamiliar "Nessun Dorma"—they do justice not only to Sampedro's inner life but also to similar passages in works like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. But they're not balanced by scenes more rooted in Ramón's grueling paralysis—scenes in which we feel cruelly confined to see and hear what he does and nothing more.

More troublesome is the philosophical patness. Little weight is given to the opponents of euthanasia, among them a quadriplegic priest who's the butt of a near-farcical set piece. (His wheelchair can't make it up the stairs to Ramón's room, so the debate is conducted through intermediaries in a perverse game of telephone.) The movie's case is clinched by the fate of Ramón's lawyer, who has a degenerative disease. She is persuaded—against her better instincts—to live with her illness and ends up a smiling zombie. The Sea Inside doesn't touch on my own worry about judicially sanctioned euthanasia: that it will cause people with incapacitating conditions to feel pressured to take their own lives. Even saintly caregivers have periods of exasperation: Why not spare them their toil and end it all? And what about families who aren't so saintly, who come right out and urge suicide? An individual might—might—have a moral right to take his or her own life, but shouldn't the legal hurdles be left in place?

The Sea Inside
The Sea Inside

As the woman who wants to follow our hero but has a harder time leaving her life, Belén Rueda has the showstopping supporting role, but it was Lola Dueñas' Rosa who touched me with her tremulous fixation on Ramón. As for Bardem: How can I do him justice? He is normally the most robustly physical of actors, with a plummy voice and an insolent sensuality. To see him immobile, ashen, his hair gone, de-bodyized: It's agonizing. And the horror is reinforced by flashbacks showing the young Ramón (Bardem, too, and never fitter) in a swimsuit—like a reckless Greek god, poised on a cliff above the water that will prove his unmaking. Even more difficult to bear is the voice: Bardem doesn't use his sublime lower register. He comes to the ends of sentences and can't find the air, and you can see the pain and anger in his eyes as he takes another breath from his oxygen hose, a hated appendage. When you see Richard Dreyfus as a quadriplegic in Whose Life Is It Anyway? the tragedy doesn't hit you with such immediacy: Dreyfus is always a talking head. But with Bardem you feel your body hum in sympathy.

Scarcely less moving is Kevin Bacon in The Woodsman, a frustrating film about a harrowing subject: child molesters. Bacon is Walter, who once liked having prepubescent girls sit in his lap—and might still, even after 12 years behind bars. In the movie, directed by Nicole Kassell from a play by Steven Fechter (she and Fechter did the adaptation), Walter takes a job at a lumberyard and tries to stay away from school playgrounds, a difficult task given that his apartment is a mere 320 paces from one. This does allow him to study an alter ego of sorts, a fair-haired fellow (Kevin Rice) he calls "Candy," who plants himself rather conspicuously in front of the school and offers bags of sweets to little boys. Is Candy a projection, or does he exist? It would be awfully convenient, from a dramaturgical perspective, if he were real—and awfully odd that no parent, in these vigilant times, is around to take notice of Candy's egregious overtures.

The title is a double entendre, but it's the second meaning that carries all the weight. A police sergeant (Mos Def) who pays Walter frequent, insinuatingly nasty visits, invokes the story of Little Red Riding Hood, which ended with its heroine being cut out of the wolf's stomach by a passing woodsman. Where, he wants to know, are the woodsmen when we need them? The Woodsman, carpentered to a fault, wrings pathos from Walter's abuse at the hands of would-be woodsmen and then gives him an occasion to unload on a child molester himself. It's equally handy that his new girlfriend, Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick), is in the unique position of being able to forgive him for his sins. Completing the tidy trinity is a solitary little girl, Robin (Hannah Pilkes), whom he follows into the park and who turns out to have a secret of her own. Despite the muted, minor-key ambience, the movie is full of groaners, from the hammy freeze-frames in the credit sequence to the symbolic weight of birdies.

The Woodsman should be pretty intolerable, but the writing—line by line—is heartfelt and probing, the direction gives the actors room to stretch out, and the performances are miraculous. Sedgwick has a lovely clown face that can convey bitterness and yearning in the same instant. Mos Def makes his stagy monologues mesmerizing: His too-easy cadences suggest a man ready to explode. And Pilkes has an indelible presence as a girl whose last flicker of childish hope is invested in things with feathers.

Kevin Bacon is an underrated actor. Even though Sean Penn and Tim Robbins won all the awards for Mystic River, it was Bacon who subtly suggested the damage to his psyche and kept the ramshackle policier plot in motion. Here, he's gaunt, haggard, and unresponsive—closed-down. But when he meets little Robin, he transforms in a way that's both profoundly affecting and ghastly. He speaks fluidly and kindly, he listens sympathetically—he is making a real connection. Yet his eyes glow an unearthly blue, and his skeletal face conjures up the grave. He reminded me of Boris Karloff out of his bandages in The Mummy, his papery skin on the brink of crumbling. Bacon makes Walter's improbable epiphany credible—a feat akin to making Andrew Lloyd Webber sound like Verdi.

Hotel Rwanda doesn't make the massacre of nearly a million people only 10 years ago even remotely credible: If it hadn't actually happened, it would be hard to believe that one portion of a country could be moved by the exhortations of generals and radio personalities to take machetes to the other. The movie, directed by Terry George, wastes no time trying to explain the attempted genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus. Instead, it tells the true story of Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), the manager of a four-star, French-owned resort hotel who evolved into the Oskar Schindler of Rwanda.

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