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Nasty Boys

Robert Downey Jr. brightens a grim Sherlock; Michael Haneke’s White Ribbon is just a grind.

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Given that Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes turns the great sleuth (Robert Downey Jr.) and his sidekick, Dr. Watson (Jude Law), into the boxing and martial-arts champions of London, the movie is surprisingly bearable. It’s overlong and skitters around for a good 45 minutes before a plot kicks in, but Ritchie adds fillips of style to the incessant fights—he might have made a good director for the flop The Avengers picture. Having Holmes battle a villain who might or might not have supernatural powers actually conjures up the world of Arthur Conan Doyle, who in real life had too much faith in his five senses, which made him an easy mark for tricksters.

The only reason to see it is Downey: No one in film is more likable when playing dislikable people. When not on a case, his Holmes is not merely a depressive but a nasty, dissolute, hollow-eyed slob with a compulsion to test sedating drugs on his hapless pooch. Law’s drab Watson appears to be disgusted by him—to the point where the mystery is how he could have ever become Holmes’s friend, let alone the detective’s Boswell. But Downey’s boy-king spirit shines through. That spirit isn’t Holmesian (not much kickboxing in Conan Doyle), but by now we’ve seen so many good, bad, and indifferent Sherlocks that it’s almost a relief to get something different, however wrongheaded. And there’s no such thing as too much Downey.

With The White Ribbon, the German director Michael Haneke follows Lars von Trier (Antichrist) in borrowing a serviceable horror-movie premise, gussying it up for the international festival crowd, and passing off its sclerotic insights as harsh new truths about the essential evil of man (and woman and child). Von Trier wallowed in psychodrama and metaphysics (and gore), but Haneke has a social agenda. His brow lifted higher than usual, he attempts to depict the festering psyche of the Germans on the brink of World War I. The movie plays like an Ingmar Bergman remake of the little-kids-from-space picture Village of the Damned—except if Bergman had made it, he might have set out to discover something he didn’t already know. Haneke’s contempt for humanity had congealed into dogma before he shot his first frame of film. The movie is a long 144 minutes.

Haneke’s setting is a small village rocked by acts of malevolence. A doctor and his poor horse connect with a trip wire. A farmer’s wife working for the town’s chief landowner, a baron, falls through a hole in the floor—shortly after which the baron’s little son is found strung up and lashed, with a note that says the sins of the father will be visited on the child. Who could be responsible for such acts? The ingenuous male schoolteacher (who relays the story of the village as an old man) notices a group of children led by an obsequiously angelic blonde girl and her guilty-looking brother as they troop down the street to ascertain the condition of the latest victim. By and by, the blonde gazes with disgust on a boy with Down syndrome—clearly an inferior specimen. The teacher sees the brother balancing over a precipice: The boy says he’s giving God a chance to kill him for crimes unspecified. As in the revenge-of-the-repressed quasi mystery, Caché, Haneke doesn’t deign to deliver the genre goods—resolution, catharsis, etc. That way he can crudely spell out his themes and yet still give the bourgeois audience the finger.

Haneke depicts the whole village as morally corroded: economic exploitation, incest, corporal punishment of kids, hypocrisy, too. The title refers to the white ribbon the minister ties to his eldest daughter to remind her of innocence and purity. Later, he binds his elder son to the bed to keep the boy from masturbating. Few can resist abusing power: It’s a virus. And we know where it’s leading: to blind obedience, collective madness, fascism. Somewhere along the way, the director made the leap from generalized sadism (Benny’s Video and Funny Games—so not nice he made it twice) to political indictments (Caché). But his basic sadistic impulse never evolved.

Christian Berger has shot The White Ribbon in stark black and white, in imitation of Sven Nykvist’s work in early Bergman. It’s striking. But Bergman pared down the frame to allow us to scrutinize his actors’ emotions, while Haneke’s faces are (Scandinavian-looking) masks. Chill to the core, he presents human cruelty not to make us empathize with the victims or understand the oppressors but to rub our noses in the crimes of our species. He thinks he’s held on to the subversive ideals of punk, but all I smell is skunk.

Now we know James Cameron’s Avatar is not a brontosaurean folly but a mighty ode to Gigantism and Awesomeness. Yes, it’s also a populist crock: an attempt to rewrite (and reanimate) history with a barely disguised lefty parable of Native Americans versus capitalist imperialists who’d drive them from ancestral lands—aided by an imperialist (a marine) who has gone native. In this case, going native means turning computer-generated. In 1999, The Matrix boasted a hero who learned that his world and body were an illusion and struggled to return to the “real.” A decade on, the hero says, “Out there is the true world. In here”—his ship, his human body—“is the dream … I don’t know who I am.” Who he is, of course, is a born-again Injun in the mode of the hero of A Man Called Horse. And so he fights for the true, the pure, the primitive, against the poisonous forces of technology—all made possible by Cameron’s technological wizardry.

The problem until now with CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) is that it didn’t make the final perceptual leap. It was impressive rather than immersive. But Cameron moves the boundary posts. Beyond his motion-capture gizmos, he has an old-fashioned command of composition: strong foregrounds and layers of texture and movement reaching back into the frame and down to the teeniest pixel. On the moon Pandora, he creates a living ecosystem—and You (and Your 3-D Glasses) Are There. With its “bioluminescent” landscape, this moon is alive, spiritually connected at the roots, bound together by a kind of “Over-Soul.” And damned if that’s not what the technology—and its true deity, whose initials are, coincidentally, J.C.—evokes. Pantheism, Cameronism: In Avatar, what’s the diff? Now he’s king of a world he made from scratch.

Sherlock Holmes
Directed by Guy Ritchie.
Warner Bros. Pictures. PG-13.

The White Ribbon
Directed by Michael Haneke.
Sony Pictures Classics. R.

Avatar
Directed by James Cameron.
Twentieth Century FOX. PG-13.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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