A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Photo: Matt Nettheim/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

What an impossible task Spike Jonze has set for himself, adapting one of the few works that can be confidently called “perfect.” Maurice Sendak’s illustrated children’s book Where the Wild Things Are is the tale of a little boy’s tantrum and his fed-up mother’s rejection, and of the dream that transports him over the sea in his wolf pajamas to a land of monsters that crown him king and help him act out all his rowdy, infantile impulses—until the rage goes out of his system, melancholy comes, and he longs to return home. The huge creatures are right on the border between stuffed-animal cuddlesome and mythically grotesque. Childlike fantasies in Sendak’s world are always double-edged: They can liberate you or eat you up—or both.

Jonze’s film is a different animal from Sendak’s. It’s tamer and more domesticated, and its characters come with a backstory. As with many compact works, to expand is to decompress and diminish. Jonze, who wrote the script with Dave Eggers, fills in too much of the life of Max (played by Max Records—his real name, fancy that), now a lonely casualty of his parents’ divorce who freaks out when his mom (Catherine Keener) gets frisky with a date (Mark Ruffalo). One alteration is unpardonable: Max dashes out of the house and into the woods instead of getting sent to bed without supper, so there are no bedroom walls melting away and no waves rolling in—one of the book’s most archetypal images. No warm supper awaits Max’s return. What can you say? Bad adapters, bad. But once the boy is in his boat being tossed on the waves, things go swimmingly. That’s when Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are begins to cast a spell all its own.

Jonze and Eggers’s most agreeable innovation is turning Sendak’s rather anonymous beasts into complex, conflicted personalities. They sit around quarreling, smashing things, making holes in trees, staring into space, and wishing for a leader. They’re like a counterculture commune after all the hippies and their woks have left, after the drugs have stopped working so well. And then comes little Max, who proclaims himself a king to keep them from devouring him. Max Records (I still can’t get over that name) has a mop of dark hair and a sweet face, but his Max is petulant and edgy. It’s a wonderful performance; you’d never know he was acting opposite nine-foot puppets.

If you’ve seen the previews, you know that the setting is real (it’s the rocky coast of Australia) and the creatures are decidedly not. The mix of an unruly landscape, a live boy, and kiddie-show fakery shouldn’t jell—or should jell only on the level of a Muppet movie. But it works like a dream. Instead of being bombarded by computer illusions, we’re allowed to suspend our disbelief, to bring our own imaginations into play. For all the artfulness, the feel of the film is rough-hewn, almost primitive. It’s a fabulous tree house of a movie.

There is CGI, but it’s largely used for the creatures’ expressions. Outside of Gollum, I’ve never seen facial movements so evocative. Jonze rehearsed the voice actors together instead of taping them separately (by way of comparison, Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres didn’t meet until the premiere of Finding Nemo), and they’re like a crack repertory company. Catherine O’Hara is Judith, who sounds like a whiskey-soaked biker momma; Paul Dano is Alexander, the woebegone little guy with ram horns who’s always ignored. James Gandolfini has tender, plaintive cadences (all New Jersey gangster inflection expunged) as Carol, the tempestuous lummox whose stringy-haired hippie-chick girlfriend K.W. (Lauren Ambrose) has left him. Carol needs a king, a firm dad, someone to direct his wayward energies. He’s the one who asks Max if he can “keep all the sadness away,” and Max says he has “a sadness shield”—a mistake in a world of such up ups and down downs.

I’m of two minds about how Jonze and Eggers go soft in the end. These wild things don’t turn carnivorous when Max wants to leave. They act more like the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, etc. But this isn’t Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and the creatures aren’t projections of Max’s id. They’re a family, which is what this fatherless boy needs. They don’t eat their own.

Like The Blair Witch Project, the micro-budget horror picture Paranormal Activity proves that nothing is scarier than nothing. Think of a creak in the dark. You freeze. You wait. And wait. It’s the waiting that’s unbearable. What you don’t know can hurt you.

The perspective is radically limited: We see everything through the video camera of Micah (Micah Sloat), a San Diego day trader. After his live-in girlfriend, Katie (Katie Featherston), reports noises in the night and a malevolent presence, he decides to document the goings-on. And that allows the director, Oren Peli, his one genius setup. Micah places the camera in their bedroom with a view of the bed and door and dark hall leading to the stairway. The couple turns off the light and goes to sleep. The image is pale, greenish and white. There’s a timer on the screen: 1:32 a.m. and 40 seconds … 41 … 42 … 43 … Then there’s a low rumble, faint sounds of walking or running. Sometimes Katie and Micah don’t wake up—they watch the footage the next day. Or there’s a thud and Micah jumps up and grabs the camera and hurries into the hall, a little orb of light illuminating a corner or railing. Or he points the camera down the stairs into the darkness. A medium gives the couple the name of a “demonologist,” but macho Micah wants to take care of this himself. He yells things into the dark like, “Is that all you got?” We want to yell to Katie, “Call the demonologist now, and dump the asshole!”

Paranormal Activity is weakest when most explicit: A clear shadow or a door swinging shut dilutes the dread. But I’ve never seen a movie that so cunningly exploits our anticipation. Every time Peli cut to another bedtime and the timer appeared on the screen, I said out loud, “Oh, shit, here we go.” In the light of day, it’s all very silly and conventional. But of course we’re not talking about the light of day.

Sebastián Silva’s The Maid centers on drab, prickly Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), who has worked for a rich Chilean family for 23 years and starts to go loco when they want to bring in another servant to help her out. At its midpoint, the film could go either way: toward The Hand That Rocks the Cradle psychosis or something more hopeful and humanistic. It’s a testament to Saavedra’s tough performance that even with a happy ending, you wouldn’t want to leave her with your kids.

Where the Wild Things Are
Directed by Spike Jonze.
Warner Bros. Pictures. PG.

Paranormal Activity
Directed by Oren Peli.
Paramount Pictures. R.

The Maid
Directed by Sebastián Silva.
Elephant Eye Films. NR.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius