The Ides of March
Surely there can be few people by now who are unaware that politics is a scummy business. Nevertheless, this is the news that director George Clooney brings us in his carefully paced semi-thriller, The Ides of March. As the title indicates, the movie is an examination of betrayal, on several levels. The stars—Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, and especially Ryan Gosling, the film’s central presence—are so good they almost make the picture work. But they’re let down in the end by the movie’s under-powered style—it’s almost too tastefully done—and by the facile implausibilities and familiar political tilt of the script (a collaboration by Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon, who wrote the play on which the film is based).
The story is set in wintry Ohio, during the final week of a Democratic presidential primary. Pennsylvania governor Mike Morris (Clooney) is in the lead, but one of his opponents is catching up. Morris’ campaign is being run by veteran political operative Paul Zara (Hoffman), capably assisted by hotshot up-and-comer Stephen Myers (Gosling).
The opposition mastermind is wily Tom Duffy (Giamatti). Both Duffy and Zara realize that their candidates will need the endorsement of a powerful senator named Thompson (Jeffrey Wright) in order to prevail. But in exchange for the hundreds of delegates he controls, Thompson wants major payback: a promise to be appointed secretary of state in the administration of whichever candidate will meet his demand.
Myers is a young idealist. He believes Morris “can make a difference in people’s lives” and he resonates to the older man’s smoothly reiterated beliefs. Morris is a doctrinaire liberal. He wants to save the planet and wean the country off oil (he promises to institute regulations that would ban internal-combustion engines within 10 years after his election). He also wants to fight terror by making nice with the country’s enemies, and he’s outraged that the rich “don’t pay their fair share,” and cry “socialism” whenever it’s suggested they should do so. This is the standard progressive agenda, of course, and there’s no countervailing critique of it. (The term “GOP” is mentioned maybe twice, but there are no pesky Republicans actually in view.)
I think we can assume that the movie reflects Clooney’s own political convictions. (Amid the media fixtures passing through the film are Charlie Rose, Chris Matthews, and Rachel Maddow.) And so it’s interesting that his character, a sleek charmer in the Mitt Romney mode, is slowly revealed to be a duplicitous hypocrite, a man who’ll say or do anything to win office. If this is a slap at the present-day Democratic Party, as opposed to politics in general, Clooney deserves cranky-idealist props.
In any case, Morris is almost a peripheral character here. The real star is Gosling, who once again gives a performance of captivating restraint. His Myers is a naive man ripe for schooling by the grizzled dissemblers all around him. (“None of this is about the democratic process,” one of them informs him.) Myers’ ideals begin to crumble when Duffy attempts to lure him away from the Morris campaign and into the rival camp; and they threaten to implode after a hot young campaign intern named Molly (Wood) enters the scene, and fatefully complicates everyone’s life. This element of the plot, which also enables a rote jab at Catholics, struck me as distractingly melodramatic and far-fetched, for reasons I won’t go into.
But the actors—including Marisa Tomei as a pushy reporter nipping around everyone’s heels—are all exceptionally good. (Wood, especially, exudes an air of erotic calculation that’s unlike anything I’m aware she’s ever done before.) And Clooney, a fine director by now, maintains solid control of the film’s somewhat somber tone. He also stages at least one memorable scene. It’s a long shot in which we see Hoffman summoned into an unexpected meeting in a parked van; the camera holds on the van in silence, and when Hoffman finally emerges, we can read the weight of betrayal, even from a distance, in his eloquently slumped shoulders. It’s too bad the movie’s well-constructed but predictable conclusion can be seen coming from even farther away.
The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)
The 2009 Human Centipede (First Sequence) elicited understandable opprobrium. Outside of the ravening torture-porn cult, it was felt to be vile, inhuman, and, if nothing else, a caution to topless actresses everywhere. Now, however, with the release of The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence), the outline of something more—an extended, deadpan provocation—begins to take shape.
The first film, as you’ll surely recall, introduced us to the rogue surgeon Dr. Heiter (unforgettably played by skull-on-a-stick German actor Dieter Laser) and his mad dream of suturing together a group of captive human subjects, mouth-to-anus, to form an entomological monstrosity. It was a big dream, and—since bodily wastes could only pass from one subject to the next through their conjoined orifices—an unprecedentedly disgusting one. Heiter’s demented chant (“Feed her!”) must echo in the ears of anyone who saw the picture.
Unfortunately, apart from brief flashbacks on a laptop screen, the good doctor is absent from this even more abominable sequel. The laptop belongs to an enormously fat, sweaty asthmatic named Martin (Laurence R. Harvey), a security attendant in a London parking garage. Martin is obsessed with the first Centipede movie (very meta), and yearns not only to replicate its foul horrors, but to expand upon them. Once again, we get to watch.
After some scenes set in the cramped apartment Martin shares with his mother, in which we learn that he was abused by his now-imprisoned father, the movie focuses almost exclusively on the most gruesome torment. Wielding a crowbar, Martin overpowers various customers in his parking establishment—one of them a pregnant woman—and transports them to a grimy warehouse he has rented, where he hogties them and cuts off their clothing. He’s aiming for an even-dozen victims, and when he manages to lure Ashlynn Yennie—one of the pitifully abused actresses in the first Centipede—to London with the promise of an audition for a Tarantino movie (!), his quota is filled, and he gets down to business.
Out comes the kit full of alarming implements—hammer, knives, stapler, pliers, meat cleaver—followed by a grisly checklist of tongue-yanking, teeth-bashing, tendon-slicing, and face-to-butt stapling. (There’s also an unexpected interlude of sandpaper masturbation, which does little to lighten the mood.) Finally, with his human-centipede segments connected into one long gastric system, Martin brings out the king-size jug of laxative.
HCII fails as a horror movie. There are no rousing frights, only blood and agony. So what is it then? A knowing poke in the eye aimed at torture-porn fanboys, daring them to salivate over this jacked-up depravity? A social commentary about the low estate of popular culture? Or are these possibilities part of some encompassing goof? The Dutch director, Tom Six, seems too skillful a filmmaker to confine himself to such a grotesque genre. But we won’t know his full intent until the “concluding” installment of the series (what, a globe-circling string of victims?) arrives in our midst. Yes, The Human Centipede (Final Sequence) is already in development.
Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be out on November 8th from St. Martin’s Press. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.