The problem with Bing’s screenplay is that it doesn’t nail the story’s ideological underpinnings—the notion that Von Koren is on the Darwinist-eugenicist cusp with an urge to rid Russia of useless Oblomov types like Laevsky. That slackens the structure and makes the duel, when it comes, slightly baffling in its motivation. And because Menzies’s Von Koren is so peripheral, our sympathy drifts to Scott, whose escalating hysteria is unexpectedly winning. Glascott plays Nadia as such a poetically confused ingénue that I’d love to see her tackle Nina in The Seagull. Though it’s not all it could be, Anton Chekhov’s The Duel is convincingly—yes—Chekhovian.
In Harry Brown, an old-age-pensioner Death Wish, murderous punks are taking over an English housing project and the mild, elderly widower Harry (Michael Caine) is driven, after a friend is murdered, to get back in touch with the soldier self he shamefacedly laid to rest after serving in Northern Ireland. I wish there were another wrinkle, but it is what it is: Seething Harry clearing the streets of scummy thugs while a detective (Emily Mortimer) on his tail wrestles with ethical questions that are finally beside the point when a taunting homicidal degenerate’s hands are around her throat. The chief problem is that Caine makes a grave, soulful vigilante avenger, and first-time director Daniel Barber gives the film a dank, streaky, genuinely unnerving palette. Moral artists have no business making a fascist, reactionary movie this effective. To hell with them.
But Harry Brown shrinks beside The Human Centipede. If you grew up loving horror and exploitation films, torture porn poses certain dilemmas—because what attracted us in the first place was the flouting of taboos. We believe in the idea of “transgressive” art, right? Well … I’m not sure I want to live in a world that would embrace this particular monstrosity, a clinical, detached portrait of a German sadist who performs experiments on two women and a man, removing parts of jaws and knees, sewing mouths onto anuses, and running a digestive tube … never mind. The director forces into our mouths what he forces into the mouths of his female characters. The movie stinks to heaven.