Thursday, 14 November 2013
Strange Things not so Mystifying; on The World’s End
directed by Edgar Wright; written by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg
The World’s End begins with the familiar.
Everyone has that moment upon leaving high-school where, tied to a band of friends you consider your best friends, you imagine that you’ll be bound to the persons you’ve grown to love for the rest of your lives. Often that does not happen. You get grow up, or you grow apart, and relations become strange. Sometimes, though, everyone doesn’t do that growing and due to arrested development, folly, or just lack of commonsense there is that one person who wants things to be exactly like it was. That’s Gary King. He’s the prototypical adolescent caught in a child’s body. His high school life was the best time of his life and 20 years later, a middleaged alcoholic, he’s determined to get that time back. Even though his band of friends are less enthused. They’re less enthused but not implacable, though. Otherwise, there would be no movie. And so, cocky/smarmy/immature/but sad Gary King cajoles four more strait-laced former friends of his into heading back to their nondescript childhood town to complete The Golden Mile – a pub-crawl across twelve different pubs drinking pint after pint after pint. The intent is to reach to The World’s End – the final pub. And, so The World’s End seems straightforward enough. And the off-shoots from this straightforward orchestration of events seems simple enough – perhaps, peppy friends reunite comedy? A melancholy, you can’t go home again dramedy? A drinking farce? One or the other right…? Well, not quite.
Up-fronts, I’ve seen neither Shaun of Dead nor Hot Fuzz. This means I went into The World’s End, the third of “The Cornetto Trilogy. “The Cornetto Trilogy, most of you may know, is a trio of films created by Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost beginning with Shaun of the Dead, continuing with Hot Fuzz and then closing with The World’s End. I bring this up because unfamiliarity with the earlier two films gave me little perspective as to how to consider the madcap zaniness of this film. Further up-fronts: in my (occasionally futile) attempts at avoiding information about releases before I see them I had no idea what The World’s End was about. So, up until that shocking story-turning moment in the film when that thing happened (more on that later) I kept wondering what kind of film I was dealing with, boy was I wrong.
(Mild research reveals that “that thing” which happens some way into the film is include in all adverts which means I’m not spoiling anything. But, hey, I’m discussing a movie here so chances are I’d be discussing plot propellants anyhow. Avoid if spoilers worry you.)
Lots more blathering from me below the jump....
So, that moment. Up until thirty five minutes into the film The World’s End is ambling along at a sincerely comedic meandering buddy comedy where the five men try to re-acclimate to their town and each other after five years. (Meandering, from me, is no insult. Remember one of my favourites from last year was Once Upon a Time in Anatolia a film about a murder that didn’t as much try to be a crime drams as it meandered about incidentally solving a crime. Also, all my writing meanders. Case in point, this, but I digress.) Gary, as sleazy as he is brashly intriguing, has used prevarications to get everyone together and heads into a bar toilet to get his act together. While there he comes to blows with a teenager. Only it doesn't end up going as anyone would assume. The tussle turns particularly violent and Gary tears the head of the teen off. It's a moment that had me reeling. The hell is going on here? Quick notifications get us and the five main players up to speed. The town has been undertaken by robots (called blanks in the quest for political correctness) who have replaced the human versions. Our band of five musketeers (as so named by their King) decide to continue on the crawl while scouting for more information, but as new information comes to light they begin trying to get out of the town. It’s not that easy.
So, now that that’s out of the way The World’s End reveals itself to be a genre hopping film or maybe, more accurately, a genre-deconstruction which takes elements of films easily discernible – the gang of misfits, now older and not so full of joy, the aliens invade a small town film, the lovable drunkard film – and puts them in a hodgepodge that’s about gently mocking them but that’s also about examining them with sincerity. I should be clear sincerity in its actual denotative meaning and not its connotative one. Sincere as in free of pretence or deceit. Even before the alien invasion plot-point The World’s End is significant for how it observes the members of this five-man clan. These aren’t very nice people. Although nice a harmless trick word which offers little in the way of information. There are many films about older men with the minds of younger men who should come off charmingly but do not. The World’s Endis riffing on this except the actors and Wright are not insisting that we like these people very much. Gary King is oftentimes abhorrent, and his more “mature” former-friends are not especially endearing. It’s an important point that goes a long way in hitting home the climax of the film’s observations on the point of humanity and the human race and it’s all not just slightly uncomfortable. As it should be, of course, because it’s not supposed to go down easy.
If this suggests a film that’s steeped in bleakness. Sincere apologies on my part, because although The World’s End is doing many things and riffing on many more things the most significant take-away from it is how relentlessly funny it is. If not funny as a whole comprising a slew of very funny moments. And, not just funny on a superficial level but “bust-a-gut” laugh-out-loud moments. In a scene which argues for best-in-show honours mystery, comedy and horror are blended as we realise someone we know might have become an imposter and Nick Frost’s Andy Knightley bashes a certain someone’s head in to which Sam (Rosamund Pike the lone main female in a not quite thankless role turned into a significant role under her estimable work) utters my favourite line reading of the film: “Andy, what the fuck?” It’s as much a cathartic moment where we get to breathe easy as we laugh for a split second before things get even more crazy as it is a savvy moment of character reaction syncing up perfectly with audience reaction because in that moment things have gotten so aggressive crazy I’m watching the machination and wondering what the fuck is Wright (and co) up to?
And, sci-fi films almost always function as much on the bare-scientific level of being effective films as well as being metaphors for more and The World’s End has it simpler because it’s never really a complete sci-fi picture even as things get more and more supernatural it’s still ultimately about these boys turned men navigating through their old town and against each other. There’s doubtlessly much more about it that one can miss upon a first viewing, but the film succeeds best for me in its small set-piece than its whole. Holistically, as much as I like The World’s End it’s the journeys through and not the ultimate destination itself which thrills me more. The souring of childhood friendships and the way they indelibly scar you are immediately evident in the way these five men interact even as it’s never completely exorcised. Or, the way that you might think you’ve matured but you’re still susceptible to some of the same inanities of your youth. But amidst all this thinking observations it’s filled with aggressively funny, if familiar, gags like a sustained attempt at keeping a pint of beer from spilling during a bar fight or Rosamund Pike as the lone female with a look of sustained incredulity wondering just how to deal with these doofuses. Er, doofi? (Consult Greta Gerwig.) The World’s End is never anything in a vacuum. It has funny bits, chilling bits, thoughtful bits and I like them individually more than together until I begin to think, maybe the fact that when put together they’re somewhat mismatched is the point….
Because it all leads up to a showdown at the eponymous world’s end (the pub not the thing, although that sort of comes later) where forces face off with Gary and the film becomes less funny and more unsettling. Are we rooting for Gary to complete his quest even if it means he’s not helping his alcoholism? Why do we want him to succeed or to get better? Should we? What must we feel for this man whose "best night of my life" was an unfinished bar crawl in his teen years that saw no tangible good emerge from it? Why are the robots our villains? As the films hurtles to its end it reveals itself as more complex than considered, and it was already showing significant complexity to begin with. That it turns this ostensible rollicking romp into something so teeming with cynicism – the “results” of where the lead characters ends up is startlingly melancholy – does what many good films do and makes you reassess your opinion on what came before. I do not think I'm holding on to my inclination to look for subtext in films because Wright is telegraphing to us all the way through that The World's End is not just about the text. (The film hinges on looking beneath the surfaces, after all.) And all the elements of the film - the fine acting from the entire ensemble, including all the bit turns; the excellent editing (making for some inspiring fight sequences) and the fine writing is helping aid the effect.
And, so on at the end I turn to the grade. One of these days I’ll end up writing a true missive about grading. And why (and how) I do it. Excellent Nick (Cinema Romantico) does not grade the films he sees which I applaud in theory, but I feel obliged to attach letter grades to mine even as I simultaneously argue that sometimes grading is difficult and even futile. I feel as if The World’s End ha better parts than the whole itself and I also feel not completely in love with it so that I’m queasy on the grading. But, I wonder how much of that discomfort is indicative of my own vague refusal to accept just how harsh and glum the roots of the films are below its antics and how much of that stems from its subverting of the comfort of my expectations. It’s one of myriad moments that make me think, again, of Nick (the other Nick at Nick Flick’s Picks) tendency to grade and then attach a second rating to films. Because, I do think The World’s End is ultimately quite important. Amidst the aliens and ink-blood and apocalypse, these are not the strange things the only thing that prove mystifying is maybe the banal predictability of human existence. Hope springs eternal perhaps a fool's edict when faced with the actions of humans and Wright exploits that for all its worth in the end And, that's really depressing, honestly. I'm used to luxuriating in the sad and have no qualms about walking into a probably sad film, but when sad cynicism comes at you in the guise of a madcap romp the after-effects are even more chilling.