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Charlie Tahan as Josh in SUPER DARK TIMES. Photo by Eli Born.

Violent-Young-Men Movies: “The Dinner,” “Sweet Virginia,” “Super Dark Times,” and “The Gray State”

Violent-Young-Men Movies: Teenage Sociopaths Are Everywhere!

by HelenHighly

The fresh batch of films coming out of Tribeca2017 seems to have a violent teenage psychopath every time you turn around. What turns our young men into crazy killers? At the same time as a slew of documentaries and true-life tales are depicting the courage and moral fortitude of actual young men around the world, responding to terrorism and war with bravery – going to extraordinary lengths to save lives, we get a bunch of “thriller” films that depict American young men as narcissistic psychopaths who revel in bloody violence. On one hand there is City of Ghosts, Dabka, and When God Sleeps, for starters – peace-seeking films about heroism, and on the other is The Dinner, Super Dark Times, Sweet Virginia, and even The Gray State, all featuring violence-obsessed middle-class Americans. Is there a cultural connection? Helen is Highly contemplating the significance of this, while I write some short reviews of these Tribeca thrillers:

Shahin Najafi in WHEN GOD SLEEPS. Photo credit: Khelghat.
Shahin Najafi in WHEN GOD SLEEPS. Photo credit: Khelghat.

I’ll start with The Dinner, directed by Oren Moverman – an intelligent thriller, starring big-names Richard Gere and Laura Linney, which is a well-made, well-balanced film that is an adaptation of the Herman Koch bestseller (first published in the Netherlands in 2009 but now smoothly re-made into an all-American tale). The film begins as a kind of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-ish gentil sit-down between two well-dressed and well-mannered couples, and with smart editing and sophisticated structure, it skillfully reveals the violent underpinnings to this story. The film’s layers and complexity make it engrossing. I also will say here that the performances are all stellar, including the other two leads, Steve Coogan and Rebecca Hall. And the cinematography is top-notch, which adds to the startling revelations and juxtaposition of civility and brutality.

This may be the most thoughtful of these violent-young-men movies, with a serious and nuanced nod to the challenges of mental illness. But that mental illness does not belong to the violent young man whose horrific actions are at the center of the tale. Is the teenage son turned into a violent sociopath by his father’s badly-controlled rage, despite being otherwise surrounded by a supportive and nurturing family, and an especially close relationship with his mother?

Steve Coogan as Paul Lohman, Richard Gere as Stan Lohman, Rebecca Hallas Katelyn Lohman, and Laura Linney as Claire Lohnman in THE DINNER. Photo courtesy of The Orchard.
Steve Coogan as Paul Lohman, Richard Gere as Stan Lohman, Rebecca Hallas Katelyn Lohman, and Laura Linney as Claire Lohnman in THE DINNER. Photo courtesy of The Orchard.

Is that really how sociopaths are built? And if not, then… what? I guess the teen boy could have inherited some mental illness from his father, but the father’s behavior is closely detailed and scrutinized, while the son shows no early signs of imbalance – until this one spectacular act of terror. I left thinking that was the weak point of an otherwise intelligent movie. Maybe I am underestimating the suddenness with which severe mental illness can manifest. But the movie does not fill in the blanks, so I am left to contemplate just another ordinary, brutal teenage boy.

FYI, it is no spoiler to tell that there is deadly violence in this film, because the true story is about if/why/how the parents will deal with it and/or cover it up. This, unfortunately, is not an original idea. We have seen the likes of it before in films such as The Deep End, where a mother and/or father struggle with the moral issues involved in parenting a murderer. Still, Helen does recommend this film (leaving out the Highly), if you are in the mood for a literate and complex family-drama / crime-thriller.

BUT: Back to my larger topic. That’s one violent-boy-culture movie. Now the next:

Sweet Virginia: This movie is as thoughtless and superficial as The Dinner is layered and complex. As I said in my mini-review, Director Jamie M. Dagg delivers a Cohen-Brothers-wanna-be movie that fails miserably (and I mean miserably literally – wretched to sit through). I don’t care about any of the characters, and Christopher Abbott is no Javier Bardem. Calling the pacing lethargic is kind. And the lighting is bad too (annoyingly dark, since I guess the filmmakers couldn’t manage to portray emotional darkness).

Jon Bernthal as Sam and Chris Abbott as Elwood in SWEET VIRGINIA. Photographer: Jessica Gagne.

The odd thing is that this movie does take time, during its dull and sluggish storyline, to give us some specific detail about the predator – his father, his mother, his personal troubles and dreams. And it still adds up to a big, empty nothing. (And at some point it is suggested that all that info was false anyway.) No insight. No appeal. Just a young guy with a gun who cares not who he kills or why. The epitome of Violent Boy Culture.

Unfortunately, when I watched this film, I was not able to obtain my always-preferred end-seat, so I was stuck in the middle and therefore trapped; I had to sit this movie all the way through. Otherwise, I would have bailed by the halfway mark. Helen Highly recommends that, if you go, you have a good escape route.

Super Dark Times: There seems to be something inherently menacing about teenage boys – rural-suburban teenage boys in particular. In the opening scenes of this movie, directed by Kevin Phillips, we see our key players demonstrate how over-sexed, aggressive, uneducated, bored, and rude they are. They have a callous curiosity about death. I guess these are the types who kill cats for fun. But these boys don’t do that; they kill people instead – “friends” in fact. It starts out as a single-death accident that they decide for-no-good-reason-other-than-stupidity to cover up. Then things get out of control.

Actually, this film could have been a sensitive coming-of-age tragedy. The young actors are quite good and there are inklings of emotional depth. But the filmmakers went for the thrills and gore instead. There is no apparent rhyme or reason. This serial killer is just… another kid next door who develops a taste for blood. It’s dark times; get ready for the end of the world. I would call this genre a 90’s chiller.

Owen Campbell as Zach, Charlie Tahan as Josh, Max Talisman as Daryl, and Sawyer Barth as Charlie in SUPER DARK TIMES. Photo by Eli Born.

And, now that I think about it, the movie starts with … I think… an enormous, bloody and dying moose sprawled out on a classroom floor at middle school. The way the director shows it, we first see a vague bloody carcass on the school floor (can’t tell what it is and assume it’s a person), with police and students gathered around, in horror. This raises to mind the mass shootings around the country at numerous schools… an association that is brought to the audience’s mind and then discarded and totally ignored for the rest of the film. We never see or hear of that moose ever again. Kevin Phillips, please meet Anton Checkov (re gun in the first act).

And finally: The Gray State, a documentary directed by Erik Nelson and executive produced by Werner Herzog. This is a completely fascinating film and astoundingly true tale that takes you on a wild ride with surprising twists and turns, even if you already read about this story in the news. In 2010 David Crowley, an Iraq veteran, aspiring filmmaker and charismatic up-and-coming voice in fringe politics, began production on his fictional film Gray State. Set in a dystopian near-future where civil liberties are trampled by an unrestrained federal government, the film’s crowd-funded trailer was enthusiastically received by the burgeoning online community of Libertarians, Tea Party activists and members of the nascent alt-right. In January of 2015, Crowley was found dead with his family in their Minnesota home. Their shocking deaths quickly become a cause célèbre for conspiracy theorists who speculate that Crowley was assassinated by a shadowy government concerned about a film and filmmaker that was getting too close to the truth about their aims.

The documentary carries appropriately weighty seriousness, but it also shrewdly includes a touch of macabre humor – a kind of delightful brutality, which illustrates a component of this violent-young-men mentality. The movie is meticulously thorough and fully investigates the why and what and how of the story (which is perhaps a conspiracy wrapped in an enigma). It’s a film within a film, a documentary with a thriller structure, which I love, when it’s done right, which it is here. I won’t get into the quicksand of outlining the plot, but I will mention that it also takes place in American, middle-class, suburbia, with nice homes, in a Minnesota town actually called Apple Valley.

David Crowley, self portrait, October 2014, two months before murders. Film still from A GRAY STATE. Photo credit: David Crowley.
David Crowley, self portrait, October 2014, two months before murders. Film still from A GRAY STATE. Photo credit: David Crowley.

And whatever way you look at it (and the film offers a range of mind-boggling and emotionally charged perspectives) … no matter the tragically true earnestness of the film, it ends with a double-murder-suicide by a young man. It’s a thoughtful film that addresses the Violent Boy Culture head on, at the least, and goes well beyond to explore the glamorization of the military, especially to boys, and the paranoid “they’re coming to get you” belief system that has run rampant in this country. Click here to watch the infamous trailer to the film within the film, which had a seductive appeal to many other violent young men.

The documentary also suggests legitimate mental illness as a possible contributing factor to Crowley’s bloody end (although… not every mentally ill teen necessarily turns into a killer). But if you really want to consider what is wrong with our young men, this is a good movie to see. And it’s easy and almost entertaining to watch.

I have not seen all the films at Tribeca this year, and not even read about all of them, so there are likely even more than these few films that are based on Young Male Predators. (In fact, there is one in particular that I can think of, which definitely fits this “genre” of Violent Young Men in new American films, but I don’t want to give a spoiler by revealing that the male lead is a killer. But let’s just say… yet another thriller with a young male killer, which I will explore more thoroughly when I discuss the religious overtones, in an upcoming article.) But, if feels like I see one of these Violent-Young-Men movies every day, and I’m sure it says something sad and dangerous about our society. I can only add, that by my count, there are even more films this year about young heroism. Unfortunately, it’s the spooky movies that follow you home and haunt you.




Tribeca 2017 Reviews: What to See and Skip: Helen Highly Brief

Tribeca 2017 Glimpse: What to See and Skip: Helen Highly Brief

by HelenHighly

I am working on some of my typically long, in-depth essays about several of the films that are being screened at Tribeca Film Festival 2017, but I thought I’d post a short and sweet overview / glimpse that might be of use to people in New York who may actually be choosing which films to see. At the least, here’s a brief taste of mini reviews of several of this year’s flicks:

Favorites So Far:

A film still from CITY OF GHOSTS. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

City of Ghosts. “There is a death threat against me on a social media channel… that belongs to ISIS.” — spoken by the actual guy who is in this film even as he is still fearing for his life and mourning the murders of his forced-into-activism comrades. A feature documentary directed by Matthew Heineman. The fearless citizen-journalists of “Raqqua is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS) risk their lives on a daily basis to document and expose the atrocities of the Islamic State in their home city of Raqqa, Syria.

I think this may be the best film of the festival. It features the actual young men in the middle of this story – no re-enactments. This is the real thing. It’s both a powerful story and a tremendously well-made film. It shows you first-hand how “whoever holds the camera is strongest,” and the real war against ISIS is being fought online. This is what a documentary should be – important and captivating and thought-provoking and shocking and inspiring. It will leave you breathless, and less horrified at how low humans can go than you are proud of how great humans can be in the face of adversity. There are many films coming out now from or about the Middle East, but City of Ghosts is a Must-See.

Abdi (Barkhad Abdi) and Jay (Evan Peters) waiting to interview a pirate in DABKA. Photographer: Jasyn Howes.

Dabka. A feature narrative, based on a true story, directed by Bryan Buckley. This tells the story of rookie journalist, Jay Bahadur (played beautifully by Evan Peters), who has an inspiring chance-encounter with his journalist idol (played by Al Pacino, in a smart performance that is a refreshing reminder of what an excellent actor he is). There are many reasons to admire this film, but one personal point of appreciation is the emphatic way that Al Pacino yells, “Fuck Harvard!” (just saying) Anyway: This young, crazy-ambitious wanna-be-journalist uproots his life and moves to Somalia looking for the story of a lifetime. Hooking up with a local fixer, he attempts to embed himself with the local Somali pirates, only to find himself quickly over his head. Yet his risk-taking adventure ultimately brought the world an unprecedented first-person account of the pirates of Somalia (that the major news outlets were literally afraid to cover) and influenced international politics with its genuine insight into real life in Somalia.

It’s the kind of film I love – about being a writer, and also about living a daring life. Plus, it reinforces the belief that I have long held – that people should not be judged by their governments, or by the radical extremists that terrorize them into submission (before going on to terrorize others).

Ittetsu Nemoto in Nagoya, Japan. Film still from THE DEPARTURE, directed by Lana Wilson, 2017. Photo credit: Emily Topper.

The Departure. A feature documentary directed by Lana Wilson. The film offers an intimate portrait of one quietly extraordinary man – a modern-day Buddhist priest renowned for counseling and saving the lives of suicidal people. But this priest, suffering from heart disease and supporting his wife and young son, risks his life carrying the heavy emotional load needed to support those who no longer want to live. Not the least bit maudlin or depressing, this film poetically explores what it means to be human and to be alive. One of my favorite lines from the film: When confronted with a woman who feels her life has no meaning, he says “Does a river have a meaning?”

These You Can Skip:

Dog Years, with Burt Reynolds, playing an aging movie star unable to accept his increasing irrelevance, who is forced to confront… blah blah blah. The only thing interesting about this movie is that Burt Reynolds is “playing” a role and pretending to be someone other than himself. Otherwise, painfully cliched and horrifically adorable. Dear Burt: Two words – Sunset Boulevard. Unless you can deliver a dead guy floating in a swimming pool (rather than a chubby, tattooed hipster chick who needs boyfriend advice more than Gloria Swanson needs her close-up) … give us a break.

Take Me and Hounds of Love. See my other article about two films-to-miss that feature blondes bound in basements.

Vic Edwards (Burt Reynolds) and Ariel Winter (Lil) share a moment at McDougal’s Pub in DOG YEARS. Photo by Bob Franklin.

Sweet Virgina, a Cohen-Brothers-wanna-be thriller, with just-plain-bad lighting and a lethargic pace, that has not-even-close-to-Tarantino blood-soaked violence that is too boring to even be gruesome. Christopher Abbott is no Javier Bardem. And… do I really need to say more about beautiful blondes (not yet bound in basement, but certainly at risk)? I will say that the one bit I enjoyed is the Lyle-Lovett-ish ugly/sexy rodeo-rider history of the male hero. (A longer review in part of my “Violent-Young-Men Movies” article.)

Super Dark Times: No

More Quick Yeses:

Aardvark: Yes

The Dinner: Yes (A longer review in part of my “Violent-Young-Men Movies” article.)

When God Sleeps: Yes

AlphaGO: Yes

Chuck: Surprisingly, yes!

Buster’s Mal Heart: Oddly, yes.

A Gray State: A deeply, darkly, disturbing YES. (A longer review in part of my “Violent-Young-Men Movies” article.)