Monday, October 22, 2018

Well, I'd love to chat some more... but let's kill each other instead


Does it count as breaking the Netflix Curse if all they did was distribute it?  Either way, The Night Comes For Us is high-test martial arts in the best Indonesian style, and one whole shitload of it, too (which is good, because it doesn't have a damned thing else to fall back on).

Written and directed by Timo Tjahjanto
With Joe Taslim (Ito), Julie Estelle (The Operator), Abimanya Aryastya (Fatih), Zack Lee (White Boy Bobby), Dimas Anggara (Wisnu), Asha Kenyeri Bermudez (Reina), Revaldo (Yohan), Dian Sastrowardoyo (Alma), Hannah Al Rashid (Elena), and Iko Uwais (Arian)

Spoiler alert: mild

The Night Comes For Us is an amazing mess, which is probably not a complete surprise, considering it's a passion project that's been slowly pieced together by its writer-director Timo Tjahjanto over the course of the last four years, during which time he shepherded not one but two other  whole feature films to completion, first the also-martial-arts-driven Headshot in 2016 (alongside his frequent directorial collaborator Kimo Stamboel, as well as no fewer than three of Night's actor-stuntpeople), and then, earlier this year, the horror film May the Devil Take You (which, like Night, he directed all on his lonesome).  I haven't even seen either, and yet I can already surmise they were stopgap measures.  But now, at long last, the opus Tjahjanto wanted to make in the first place is finally here for everyone to see it—and I mean everyone, since it's conveniently been released in America on Netflix—and while Night is definitely one big mess, there's also surely no mistaking it for anything else besides somebody's opus.

Less a functional motion picture than a collection of scenes barely tied together by a plot, Night openly invites precisely that kind of lazy, cliche criticism, because in this case it's actually true, and while it isn't exactly dysfunctional, its emphases are on rather different aspects of filmmaking than one would usually find; Tjahjanto might've inherited many of the marquee stars of Gareth Evans' The Raid and The Raid 2, but not remotely all of Evans' cinematic interests.  (A good thing and a bad thing, I suppose, given that both The Raid 2 and Evans' own Netflix-released Welsh vacation, Apostle, are each lugubrious and dawdling affairs, albeit to greatly varying degrees of severity.)  Anyway, Night is a curious creature, sort of a hybrid.  It is a martial arts picture, of course, and one hell of a martial arts picture at that, featuring choreography by one of its stars, the magnificent Iko Uwais (and, therefore, predominated by silat—with, sure, let's go ahead and say some of headliner Joe Taslim's judo thrown in, even if I have to admit I wouldn't recognize judo if somebody threw me down a flight of stairs with it).

But it's also an actioner qua actioner, and while The Raid, for example, is almost suspiciously eager to rid itself of gun violence in favor of hand-to-hand combat, firearms and gunfight choregraphy (not necessarily Woovian gun-fu, but an approximation of it in a vastly more manic register) are indeed our constant companions in Night.  Properly speaking, in fact, every character ought to spend most of the movie as deaf as Sterling Archer.  They're even augmented from time to time by explosives, and, incidentally, do Indonesian police really carry grenades?  But, ultimately, the phrase that best sums up Tjahjanto's work is "splatter movie," and it's earned hasty comparisons to the Evil Dead trilogy and to Braindead, and these comparisons aren't even exactly wrong, though the movie it got me thinking of was Fede Alvarez's articleless Evil Dead, which likewise takes refuge in maximal gore at the expense of any other concern, and which likewise clearly knows the tune it's supposed to be singing, but not necessarily all the lyrics.  Because the other the thing that The Night Comes For Us wants to be—and, presumably, this is the means by which it wants to earn that astonishingly pretentious and faintly terrible title—is the story of two brothers-in-arms in a crime syndicate, one tasked to kill the other for daring to try to climb out of the hell of depravity they fell into together.

As for plot, it's both incredibly simple and annoyingly convoluted: the simplest version is that Ito, a top killer for the [sic] Triad, has a change of heart during an especially brutal mission to exterminate a village that's earned the Triad's ire, and, rather than killing the last villager alive, a precious little girl named Reina, he kills his compatriots instead, and spirits the girl away, praying he can keep her safe.  In this quest, he is assisted by his former partners in low-level peddling, Fatih and "White Boy" Bobby (Indonesians apparently being able to read Zack Lee's one-quarter European DNA at a glance; I certainly wasn't, and this baffled me somewhat).  Fortunately for Ito, Fatih and Bobby are, as the genre demands, also top-level martial artists for no explained reason (Fatih's newbie cousin Wisnu is not, and I'll admit, it is both kind of cute and kind of tragic to place a character like this in the company of war gods like these).  But set against Ito and his friends are all the resources of the Triad, including their own designated superhumans, notably the gimmicky lesbian assassins Alma and Elena, but, above all, their own old friend Arian, who might prefer not to kill his ancient comrades, but who has ambitions and obligations that he cannot deny.

Well, somewhere inside this tornado of fists and motivations is the tale of how Ito and Arian sold themselves into the servitude of the Triad as a result of Bobby's mistake of crossing them, and threaded through is Arian's conflict between self-aggrandizement, self-preservation, guilt, and the blame he places on his old gang for trapping him in hell in the first place.  And none of that really, actually plays, in large part because of an arbitrary flashback-structure that's almost more confusing than it is enlightening, and also because the film decisively prioritizes action over mood and character, to the point where I don't know why Tjahjanto didn't reduce it to much simpler pieces, given how basically simple it is.  Yet it is not, I think, due to any deficiencies in either Joe Taslim's performance as the hero or in Iko Uwais's performance as the villain—hell, it's plausible that Arian, turning Uwais' good looks and steady charm into something subtly treacherous, represents the best and most psychologically-complex work he's ever done as an actor, as such.  So blame it instead on the negligent (and sometimes downright weird) choices Tjahjanto makes in trying to tell a story he obviously cares about, but just keeps letting get completely away from him, like when Arian suffers an offscreen death so fake that big capital letters might as well have flashed on the frame—"NOTE: FATIH ACTUALLY SHOT THE WALL BEHIND HIM"—yet we sit around for a full twenty minutes waiting for our antagonist to return, and when we find Arian at last, he's just sitting around doing nothing, because Tjahjanto never even tries to account for his time, not even the seven minutes' worth of parking garage gunfight that was, evidently, happening right next to him while he played Candy Crush and/or stared with a melancholy hunger out at the world.  And as a merely comprehensible object, Night more-or-less breaks down completely once Julie Estelle's never-named "Operator" shows up and effectively becomes the third co-lead of the movie, despite having neither a past nor a future within the scope of its narrative.

All along, there are so many troublesome little problems, too, a pace that feels "off" and whole sequences that feel kludged in—because they probably were, given this movie's piecemeal construction—and more than once I found myself asking, "Where the hell are they?", simply because nobody's bothered establishing what any given location is.  (Sometimes this works out okay, though it's kind of a shame that the single most visually-interesting setting we get unceremoniously thrown into—I guess it's supposed to be the Triad's new headquarters, with every piece of new furniture still under transparent plastic wrap—isn't also the setting for a battle that plays with the light, texture, and lubricity of blood that somehow happened to get thrown all over this room covered in plastic wrap.)  I also found myself wondering what the average Indonesian thinks of all these movies that present their country as an out-and-out bedlam, where the only five or six police in all of Jakarta are on a crime syndicate's payroll.

I dunno.  Proud?

The bright side is that while it's sometimes trying, it's never boring for more than a couple of minutes (and even then, those boring minutes are almost all frontloaded), and what Night falls back on, instead, is absolute gonzo excess, with what I have to imagine are the most imaginative scenes of blood and guts all 2018 will offer.  Not counting Arian's introduction—itself pretty creative, especially the way he deals with a human shield; it's not exactly "shoot the hostage," but it gets results—we start with a set-piece in a butcher shop, and only escalate from there.  Tjahjanto and Uwais know that a fight scene isn't just people pounding away at each other—environment and geography matter every bit as much as technique and gore, and Night uses its sets as integral parts of its melees and its duels, in ways so surprising and joyous you're as likely to whoop with glee as you are to wince at the human destruction at display.  You might not know you needed to see someone strangled on the plastic curtains of a walk-in cooler, or that the physics of a falling air conditioner could be so fascinating; but Tjahjanto and Uwais, they knew.

And they know, too, that sometimes the most interesting take on a fight can just be people pounding away at each other.  Hence the finale, between Uwais and Taslim, is nothing but that for so long that it becomes something akin to hypnotism.  At this extremity, even the story works, if only for the first time: playing to their strengths as physical performers, rather than reciters of maudlin dialogue, you at last get a sense through their brutality what these "kids from the slums" have meant to each other in the past, and what, precisely, they mean to each other now.

I'll give Tjahjanto this: he's put his balls on the wall.  Experimenting freely alongside his collaborators both before and behind the camera, he tasks  cinematographer Gunnar Nimpuno with all manner of bizarro colored lighting set-ups and crazed camera tricks (a GoPro attached to a rig on Taslim's back, for example; it's not entirely successful, really, but it's cool to see it tried).  And, in any individual frame, it's a better-than-decent-looking film, at its best when it's also at its most lurid.  Of course, Tjahjanto has an experiment for his editor Arifin Cuunk, too.  They want to do something you don't usually see in martial arts films; and, as they swing from battle to battle in mid-scene, it feels like they've definitely read a book that mentioned cross-cutting, even if they've never actually seen it in the wild.  One suspects, more than a little, that these unbelievably clumsy lurches from one location to the next have something to do with the film's tortured production.  But that's more along the lines of an excuse than a justification, and it has a tendency to drain the urgency and immediacy right out of any fight it's inflicted on.  Yet it kind of doesn't matter: it's to Night's performers' credit that they can always get it back.  It's even to its director's credit, because you can feel that all Tjahjanto really wants to do with Night is everything, and that's intoxicating, even if it isn't always palatable.

Ultimately, The Night Comes For Us is almost solely the sum its content: the fists and feet and knees and bullets and bombs; the places and ways in which its characters meet their ends; the corn-syrup spurting geysers of lopped-off limbs and severed carotids that would make any well-adjusted splatter fan smile (of course, given the absurdity of so many of Night's wonderful, wonderful kills, CGI is often used, too, but this, at least, is at a much higher level of quality than you'd expect).  The downside is that Night is not so much about how that content is delivered, and a package this shabby—honestly, this formally, narratively, and structurally broken—can't help but be looked askance at.  But the gifts inside are so precious that I think I must love it at least as much as the inflated score I'm about to give it would tell you.

Score:  9/10

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