Sunday, March 1, 2009

Film review: Watchmen

Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Jackie Earle Hayley, Patrick Wilson, Malin Akerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode
Country: USA
Year: 2009

“Never compromise, not even in the face of Armageddon” – Rorschach

The camera slowly zooms out from the iconic yellow smiley face badge worn by Eddie Blake. He flicks channels on his television set as talk show hosts discuss the likelihood of nuclear Armageddon imminently faced by the human race in this alternate 1985 Cold War universe where Trick Dick Nixon is still president and the US won in Vietnam. Finally he settles on a channel with promise of a better life as Nat King Cole sings ‘Unforgettable’. It’s the last momentary ironic pleasure of his life because The Comedian dies tonight.

Welcome to the world of Watchmen, an unparalleled comic book world that was for 20 years deemed unfilmmable and yet now finds itself released in a hail of cinematic glory. The so-called Citizen Kane of graphic novels massively anticipated by a rabid fanbase should not disappoint in its big screen debut because director Zack Snyder’s (300) loving adaptation is all and more that they could have reasonably hoped for. And for the curious uninitiated whose perception of the comic book genre is about to change forever? If you thought The Dark Knight was good just wait till you see Watchmen

Contained within the glorious opening punch-up and the wonderfully vaudevillian credits sequenced played out to Bob Dylan's 'The Times They Are A-Changing' are the beats, themes and spirit in which Snyder has captured the essence of author Alan Moore’s opus to masked heroes and a world consumed by madness. Darkness, the loss of innocence, human determinism and mutually assured destruction are all-pervasive.

Some of the novel’s elements such as the ‘Tales Of The Black Freighter’ (to be inserted in Snyder’s ultimate director’s cut) have been mined out altogether while other subplots (the home lives of psychiatrists) are stripped down in order to do justice to the story’s central narrative inside three hours. But Snyder, using David Hayter and Alex Tse’s screenplay, resolutely stays true to the mean streets neo-noir of Rorschach’s (Jackie Earle Hayley) pursuit of The Comedian’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) killer. As Rorschach was to the novel Hayley is to the film, brilliant as the menacing, snarling vigilante with sociopathic tendencies to be found wandering the rain and vice-drenched city at night.

What makes Hayley’s performance so impressive is the fact the vast majority of it takes place behind Rorschach’s ink-oscillating mask. Reciting portions of his character’s journal Hayley is able to convey every drip of bitter disgust, anger, suspicion and resoluteness that lies underneath the many faces of Rorschach and when he is called upon to unleash all the rage he can muster in his origin story we feel the ripples of a character changed forever. Remove the mask and Hayley is simply terrifying as Walter Kovacs, a man whose fierce nature belie his appearance and stature. This is an outstanding performance, one that will be remembered as one of 2009’s standouts.

And this is just one of Watchmen’s casting success. Hayley finds his equal in Patrick Wilson’s excellent realisation of washed-up Nite Owl II Dan Dreiberg, always with a simmering strength beneath a bookish exterior. Wilson plays Dreiberg as the geeky wannabe who never felt like he fitted in with the cool kids perhaps because he wasn’t insane enough. He needn't have feared, turns out Dreiberg has mental problems of his own and is literally rendered impotent by an inferiority complex, anxiety and his refusal to accept that being a masked vigilante was what he was supposed to be all along. When the Keene act signed by President Nixon outlawed his chosen profession, he complied willingly whilst his partner Rorschach continued recognising what Dreiberg failed to see, that he was giving up not just on vigilantism but on a world gone to pot.

Whilst Wilson and Hayley seamlessly translate their character from page to screen, it is worth noting that Morgan perhaps elevates his, finding untapped charisma and new depths of tragedy in one of literature’s greats. This dystopian Captain America who actions horrify at every juncture is the mirror of the world we have come to inhabit, a parody of a dream lost and an innocence sacrificed. Just as Rorschach says, The Comedian “saw the world for what is really was”: capitalism, war, fascism/greed, violence, moral corruption – these are the things that have largely come to define civilisation. Yet despite a modus operandi that is sheer nihilism, Morgan finds the conflict within the man Eddie Blake and his creation The Comedian. He’s a murdering, would-be rapist sonofabitch, but damn if we don’t find ourselves empathising with him in the end thanks to Morgan.

Malin Akerman bravely assumes the mantle of the slightly thankless role of Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II sometimes struggling with clunky dialogue but always bringing some sense of depth to her character, finding hurt, pain and wonder in equal measure. She also looks great and kicks ass in leather. Then there is a motion-captured Billy Crudup as the only real superhero in the movie Dr Manhattan, somehow finding emotion in the naked blue-luminous being who claims to have none. Of all the origin stories in Watchmen his 10-minute arc told during his self-imposed exile to Mars might be the most breathtaking visual and narrative achievement in the film.

Snyder revels in his 300-style speed ramping action sequences, executing them with stunning effect, without ever allowing these moments to become stylistically distracting. Punches land with thunderous impacts, bones snap and split sickeningly, knifes plunge into flesh, glass shatters and blood splatters. But this is just one element of Snyder’s visual accomplishment here, many of his frames literally pop off the graphic novel panels and are filled with just as many textured layers that Watchmen will reward repeat viewings. The film may be ripe with style, but it is never at the sacrifice of substance.

That all said, Watchmen is not without its flaws. Firstly Matthew Goode feels miscast as the world’s smartest man Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias and is largely disconnected from the audience in the overall narrative despite his centrality to the climax. Though Goode manages to find a certain leering arrogance in Veidt we are never given a chance to consider his character beyond his actions, which are admittedly significant but revealed hurriedly by a film already clocking up some serious minutes. This has the added effect of making his role in Watchmen’s third act somewhat jarring even for knowledgeable members of the audience: it’s for this reason if anything, and not the absence of giant squids, that the ending suffers.

There are other minor quibbles, the worst offender being a pretty erotic sex scene cut to Leonard Cohen’s version of ‘Hallelujah’ that’s a leather boot fetishist’s dream come true (especially disappointing given all the other excellent music choices made by Snyder and the fact that Jeff Buckley’s really is the definitive version of ‘Hallelujah’, albeit an overplayed one).

But for now space is almost certainly better spent focussed on Watchmen’s successes as a comic book movie for the ages: one that is deeply intellectual, emotionally satisfying, uncompromisingly violent and a visceral, unrelenting assault on the senses. This is “as dark as it gets” says Rorschach; and Watchmen is all the more astonishing for it.

Scott Henderson

Watchmen is released in Australian cinemas March 5.
An abridged version of this review appears in 3D World #949


Marc Fennell said...

Great review. I found myself reliving it. Honestly, i didn't think the movie was anywhere near as successful as you, however i agree on your assessment of the positives and negatives. Rorschach was amazing.. the visuals brought to life everything i could only imagine. If you want to compare you can read my first impressions here:

Scott said...

Hey Marc, I read your first impressions and I'm interested by our divergent reactions. I'm pretty stable in my opinion about Watchmen, I really loved it and not as someone who has treasured the book for decades, my first experience with Watchmen was in the middle of last year.

Funny nonetheless, I'm sure I'll be going to cinema as a paying member to see it again. I know we discussed the 'filling in gaps' reaction, but I think you've caught my meaning wrong and perhaps I didn't articulate my thought very well. Or you could be reading me correctly and I'm in denial!

That said, I firmly believe the narrative arc is true and the film's storytelling is not only self-contained but an incredible feat considering how much it packs into the 2 hours 40 minutes. It's practically aerodynamic when I think that the Under The Hood story is practically told within the opening credits montage.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

I kept thinking that the guy who played the Comedian was Javier Bardem (I found out later that it's actually Jeffrey Dean Morgan), but the two actors definitely look alike