Michael Lewis is one of my favorite non-fiction writers. He’s a phenomenal storyteller and he uses a simple formula. He finds fascinating characters who have managed to get caught up in some of the big stories of our times, and he uses their own personal stories as a window into a wider subject. His book The Big Short is about the weirdos who foresaw the 2008 mortgage-backed securities financial crisis.
If your eyes just glazed over at the phrase “mortgage-backed securities,” then this is the film for you. Writer-director Adam McKay and co-screenwriter Charles Randolph (with a great assist from editor Hank Corwin) pull out all the stops to make this one of the funniest, most illuminating films of the year.
They do this by leaning in to some of the intricacies of the financial elements, stopping down the film for entertaining footnotes, and allowing Ryan Gosling’s character (a “unreliable yet reliable narrator”) to speak directly to camera.
The term for looking at the camera is “barelling” and normally it is an actor sin. But here, it is a plenary indulgence. This is Adam McKay’s most mature work by far, which might not be a compliment considering how excellent his immature films are (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers). But his misfires, like The Other Guys, which tried to meld the Second City aesthetic onto McKay’s anger at corporate malfeasance, never gelled.
The Big Short gels like a felon. Using a British-New-Wave-meets-Martin-Scorsese aesthetic, the camerawork is maybe a tad verité, but the film is never boring. The copious stock footage gives the sweep of history. The realization that the heroes are betting that civilization will fail hits with the ton of bricks that it should.
The final note of the film, which looks into which of the Wall Street fraudsters was ultimately punished for their transgressions, is where I went all in. If you don’t know the answer to this, I won’t spoil it for you, but you need to see this film.
Shakespeare’s plays wallow in blood, but “The Scottish Play” is often cited as the bloodiest. This new version, helmed by Australian director Justin Kurzel (The Snowtown Murders) is appropriately brutal. It is not quite as bleak as the 1971 Macbeth, directed by Roman Polanski, to which it owes a great deal. In this Macbeth, the violence takes on a Phantom-camera-induced hypnotic beauty, even as it revisits again and again in the form of PTSD-like flashbacks.
The first decision the filmmakers make is a fantastic one. The film opens with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth burying their child. This backstory is something that is hinted at in the text of the play, but here it overlays the whole story, providing a sympathetic view of the Macbeths as decent people whose faith in good has been so shaken, they are willing to cross over into evil. They are not unique in their ambition, but they are willing to do “more than will become a man” if necessary. And then they find themselves unable to live with what they’ve done.
I’ve never seen a film or production dramatize this arc better. Credit to the leads Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard (a Frencophone who performs King James’s English admirably). They give us a window into the souls of murderers. And the production design, cinematography and stirring score all contribute to the dark mood of a kingdom creeping in a petty pace from day to day.
Shakespeare at least gave the audience some comedy with the Porter. In Kurzel’s Scotland, there is no levity. But there are always choices us Bardophiles will quibble over. What’s important is the movie makes the big choices right, and maximizes what must have been a meager budget. (No a lot of dollars for Shakespeare movies floating around.) Some parts feel truly epic, especially the way Kurzel & co. bring Birnam Wood to Dunsinane.
I will not spoil how this prophecy comes to pass in the film. Suffice it to say it is cinematic and appropriately infernal. There may be no higher powers in this indifferent universe, this conclusion seems to say, but human beings have it within them to make a hell on earth. And thus again did Shakespeare manage to be untimely ripped from today’s headlines.