First-person novelists tend to have a hard time making the leap to screenwriting, since they’re used to putting all the sparkling insights in their narrators’ heads and not having to deal with dialogue, subtext, or other characters’ pesky points of view. The literary power couple Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida knew enough to try to compensate for their lack of drama chops by collaborating on their road movie Away We Go and having dual protagonists, a man and a woman—a give-and-take between first-person novelists, as it were. Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are in their early thirties, poor and rootless, living in the sticks near his (narcissistic, unhelpful) parents. When Verona gets pregnant, the couple decides to fly around the country visiting friends and relatives and exploring prospective home bases: Phoenix; Tucson; Madison, Wisconsin; Montreal; Miami. When every stopover turns out to be horrific, sad, or horrifically sad, Burt and Verona ponder their future with rising misery—while I pondered their faces: Krasinski’s is hard to read behind his beard and the ironic set of his mouth, and Rudolph’s is vaguely sniffy and pissed-off. They’re a drag, these two. Perhaps their first-person novels would do a better job drawing you in.
Sam Mendes of American Beauty and Revolutionary Road directed, and he’s wrong for these writers and wrong for the open road. For all his fiddling with cameras, he’s a theater guy: His locales are designed, not discovered or explored. Travel—finding the self by escaping the self—is central to the novels of Eggers and Vida, but Mendes knows where he’s going before he gets there. And so the subject of Away We Go turns out to be not travel but child-rearing, which is at best well-meaning and anguished and at worst downright monstrous. A different director might have introduced some air and softened—instead of intensified—the writers’ snobbish portraits of parents from hell. Although it’s fun to see Allison Janney trumpet expletives and treat her kids with riotous indifference and Maggie Gyllenhaal (pictured, as a feminist academic) breathlessly denounce the sadistic isolation induced by baby strollers, their scenes are still depressing. Everything we know about their characters we learn from their first moments onscreen—only the scale of their egocentricity is surprising.
After all the cartoony satire, Away We Go turns somber; Verona stops running from the pain of her parents’ deaths; and the couple realizes that home is—not to put too fine a point on it—where the heart is. Also, that we should listen to our kids instead of projecting things onto them. The last scene ought to be deeply moving, but Mendes has to jack up the volume of the music to convey its momentousness. Yet I have faith that the perfect ending exists—a closing paragraph to die for locked away in the writers’ heads.
As the early twentieth century “naïve” or “modern primitive” painter Séraphine de Senlis in Martin Provost’s sublime drama Séraphine, Yolande Moreau is magically transparent yet utterly mysterious. What’s in her head? You don’t know—but you almost know, from glimmers in her face and from the heightened textures of the French countryside through which she toddles in a state of rapture. A plain, ruddy woman of indeterminate age, Séraphine scrubs floors and washes linens and is, in her mute drudgery, exaggeratedly self-effacing. But when she’s not working, she’s joyfully perched on tree branches or in her dark little apartment painting still lifes that suggest motion—sunflowers imbued with a radiant energy. You might think you have her pegged when she invokes the self-abnegating Saint Thérèse, but Séraphine turns out to be anything but egoless. When the German critic and art dealer Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur) effuses over her work and begins to sell her paintings to Parisians, she accepts the prospect of wealth and celebrity with unnerving alacrity. The voices in her head have predicted it, after all.
Séraphine is one of the most evocative films about an artist I’ve ever seen—and in its treatment of madness one of the least condescending. Séraphine sings when she paints or moves in her flat-topped hat through the rolling green fields, and Moreau’s voice is not in any recognizable key—it’s barely musical. Yet it’s revelatory: an imperfect translation of the inner life that finds its perfect translation in painting. Provost fades to black after many scenes, his rhythms weighty without being ponderous, the ideal state in which to enter the movie’s canvas and study Moreau’s Séraphine, who is so alien and so open.
Sam Raimi’s return to the gutbucket-horror genre, Drag Me to Hell, comes on like 3-D, no glasses needed: Demons surge into your face while their maxi-decibel roars cut through you. This old-fashioned mindless scare picture gets ferociously to the point. Gypsies spit curses (plus viscous saliva); evil spirits make infernal rackets; mediums chant fiercely to ward off spectral bombardments; and the Earth splits open for ashen hands to drag poor shrieking souls into the flames. It’s Grand Guignol grand opera.
It’s also timely, its bloodbath born of economic desperation. Really, if the decrepit Gypsy woman (the aptly named Lorna Raver) carried health insurance, she wouldn’t need to borrow from her mortgage money to pay for her protruding milky glass eye—and our good-hearted loan-officer heroine, Christine (Alison Lohman), wouldn’t find herself under pressure from her boss to deny the old bat an extension. Much screaming, clawing, and emission of bodily fluids later, Christine winds up with a hellacious curse on her head, a casualty of capitalism. Lohman has the look of a bedraggled B-movie blonde but a tremulous soul all her own. Even if she works for a bank, she hardly deserves damnation.
Raimi launched his career with gory, goofy shriek shows like The Evil Dead before graduating to more conventional thrillers and Spider-Man. Welcome back to the grindhouse, Sam! In Drag Me to Hell, he proves he’s a master comic-book director—and I don’t mean a pretentious graphic-novel stylist like Zack Snyder of Watchmen. Raimi’s frames have the hyperbolic punch of the best panels, with a kick to every cut—his montages are maniacal. Above you, below you, beside you, and from inside your head comes moaning, hissing, screaming, and the gnashing of demon jaws: Séances in surround-sound kill. Truly, this is manna from hell.
Away We Go
Directed by Sam Mendes.
Focus Features. R.
Directed by Martin Provost.
Music Box Films. NR.
Drag Me to Hell
Directed by Sam Raimi.
Universal Pictures. PG-13.