The Quest for a Better Life
Wishing for a better tomorrow is one of the most seductive pursuits we can follow. But actually making it happen takes more than just idle pondering. It requires us to envision what we want and to have faith that it can materialize for us. Are we willing to put in the work – both hypothetically and tangibly – to see through on its realization? That’s what a family seeking a better life is faced with in the moving, heartwarming domestic drama, “Minari” (web site, trailer).
The American Dream – a life brimming with optimism and opportunity for personal and economic success – is something most of us aspire to, especially those of immigrant backgrounds. And, in the economic boom of the 1980s, it was something that was seemingly on everyone’s mind. So it was for the Yi family, who immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea in search of a better life.
Korean-born Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) arrived in this country in California, where they spent a number of years working as chicken sexers, separating male and female chicks at a hatchery. While working there, they became the parents of two American-born children, Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim), a youngster with a congenital heart problem. They established themselves well, but that existence wasn’t enough for Jacob; he wanted more, to chase the American Dream by making a life for himself and his family as a farmer, something he could not economically afford in high-priced California. So, to make this happen, he pursued another option – to relocate himself and the family to rural Arkansas, home of some of the country’s richest soil and lowest land prices, a place where he could establish his own 50-acre homestead.
The film opens with the family’s arrival in Arkansas. The verdant landscape and big open skies in many ways epitomize the notion of God’s Country. But, despite such a beautiful setting, the transition of moving from California to Arkansas proves to be an uneasy one. While Jacob is truly in his element, Monica struggles to adapt. The idea of living in a mobile home propped up on cinder blocks, for example, is not to her liking, having become more accustomed to an urban existence on the Coast. She’s also concerned about the remoteness of their location, far removed from many of the essentials of life, such as the children’s school and a hospital capable of caring for David’s condition. Adjusting, it seems, is going to be more of a challenge than she thought it would be.
To generate funds to get the farming operation under way, Jacob and Monica draw upon their work experience and take jobs as chicken sexers at a local hatchery. It’s here where the reality of their new community sinks in for Monica; given the dearth of other Koreans, save for Monica’s co-worker Mrs. Oh (Esther Moon), she begins to see how culturally isolated she is. The locals generally appear to be warm and welcoming, but backhanded prejudices slip through occasionally (though, in all fairness, more likely out of ignorance than malice). Nevertheless, these conditions add to the discomfort Mrs. Yi experiences, prompting her to long for the family’s days in California – and making her wonder whether immigrating to the U.S. was a good idea in the first place.
Monica’s anguish soon bubbles to the surface so often that it causes stress in her relationship with Jacob. There’s even talk of her leaving Jacob behind and taking the children to someplace she deems more habitable. But the couple staves off this outcome by coming to a compromise – inviting Monica’s mother, Sounja (Yuh-jung Youn), to come live with them. Having Sounja present would help to provide a cultural cushion for Monica, while giving her someone to help care for the children and affording Anne and David an opportunity to get to know their grandmother better.
Of course, Grandma’s arrival has its share of challenges, too. As much as she adores her grandchildren, Sounja is not exactly the ideal grandmother. She’s got a salty side, and she enjoys her vices, like playing cards and pulling pranks. David isn’t especially thrilled with her presence initially, either, especially when she tries to coerce him into activities like drinking a foul-tasting homemade herbal remedy that she swears will help him with his health condition. In many ways, her arrival is just another log on the fire of adjustment challenges.
As all this unfolds in the household, Jacob keeps his distance by throwing himself into getting the farm up and running. This task takes much of his time and ever-increasing amounts of cash, and it’s a lot of work. Fortunately, Jacob has much-needed help from a farmhand, Paul (Will Patton), a fundamentalist Christian who perpetually praises God and routinely thanks Jacob for the job opportunity. Together this unlikely duo toils to get the fields tilled, planted and watered to produce the Korean vegetables Jacob grows. He hopes that the distinctiveness of his crops will help to distinguish his product with buyers in nearby markets, like Tulsa, where there’s greater demand for more unconventional wares, including those to suit the tastes of the city’s Korean community.
As much hard work as Jacob puts into raising his crops, though, there’s one that grows like a weed with virtually no attention paid to it – a patch of minari planted alongside a nearby shaded creek bed. In fact, the minari patch wasn’t even Jacob’s idea; it was Sounja’s brainchild. When she discovers the site for the planting, she muses about the crop’s ability to proliferate, as well as its many uses as everything from a mood elevator to a healing substance to a culinary ingredient. The parsley-like plant is a sort of agricultural wonder, but it’s one whose value is often overlooked, probably because of its abundant, weed-like growth. Sounja recognizes its benefits, though, even if Jacob doesn’t, so she’s generally left to tend to this planting herself (not that it requires much attention to begin with).
As the family works through its personal and professional challenges – of which more arise as their story plays out – they endure a variety of ordeals, some for the better, some not. The American Dream, it appears, is more elusive than imagined, perhaps even verging more on “the American Myth.” As much as everyone tries to pull together, there are just as many elements that threaten to tear them apart. But, all problems aside, there is always hope and the potential it carries to bring about a suitable resolution. And maybe, if the family sprinkles a little minari on it, that result just might grow.
Embarking on a fresh start can be a daunting prospect. Doing so frequently involves charting new and uncertain territory, much of which we’re likely to have little familiarity. However, that’s often the case when we willingly choose to leave the past behind in favor of something new. And, because of that, we had better prepare ourselves as best we can – not necessarily for the particulars involved in such a venture (though that certainly helps), but at least in terms of being ready for the types of conditions we’re likely to face – challenges, the unexpected, hardships and so forth. This comes about to a great degree in terms of what we believe, because what we put in place has a direct bearing on the outcome. And that’s important when looking to establish a fresh start.
Perhaps the most important aspect in this is envisioning what we hope to achieve, and, from this standpoint, Jacob seems to have a good handle on what he’s looking to create. He may not have anticipated every aspect of his dream, nor may he have envisioned all of the challenges he’d face. But he knows that fulfilling the American Dream is what he’s after. He also has an affinity for the land, something that writer-director Lee Isaac Chung has observed that many Koreans – immigrants or otherwise – share, a trait that naturally draws Jacob to want to become a farmer. So, with those qualities and ambitions in place, Jacob seeks to employ them to have his dream fulfilled.
Given how Jacob works through his challenges – no matter how daunting they may seem – he obviously has tremendous faith in his beliefs. That’s significant, because faith goes a long way toward cementing us in our convictions. And faith is something that seems to come quite naturally to Jacob and his family, as evidenced by their regular church attendance and the place that religion occupies in their lives. It follows that this is something that should also find its way into their beliefs in other ways, too.
That’s crucial, especially when that faith is tested, as it often is during the many challenges they face with adjustment, the farming venture, David’s health and the new living arrangements with Sounja, to name a few. Developments like these may sometimes seem like random, unwanted hardships, but they often show up in our existence as a means to determine our resolve, to get us to see just how badly we want what we claim to seek. New ventures frequently require sacrifice and considerable effort, qualities that often turn out to be commensurate with the rewards that come from them. To appreciate their manifestation, however, we must also often ask ourselves, “Is this really what we want?” In many cases, though, these ordeals generally provide us with the answers. If we truly want the results we profess, we’ll figure out ways to address these considerations and to successfully work through them.
In all of these endeavors, we usually obtain the best results when we’re authentic with ourselves. This calls upon us to tap into our sense of personal integrity, no matter what that might involve and how it’s reflected in our outlook. Jacob, for instance, exudes authenticity when it comes to expressing what he hopes to achieve. The same can be said for Monica regarding her dissatisfaction with the family’s new living arrangements. And that disconnect between them, as becomes apparent, proves to be a source of heated conflict. It may not be a desirable situation, but at least they’re both being honest with one another, and that’s an essential starting point for them if they ever hope to find a solution that’s going to satisfy everyone. Such authenticity is an integral element for coming up with workable outcomes.
There are, of course, clues as to what’s called for in circumstances like this, and one of Jacob’s crops ironically provides symbolic inspiration. Whether or not the family recognizes it as such, the minari patch, with its prolific yield, serves as an enlightening example. It grows abundantly under the harshest of conditions, and it provides the means to address an array of issues, be they health-related, emotional in nature or culinary. It’s almost as if the plant is eager to help, as if it’s got an innate quality of compassion to serve, to solve problems and to bring about helpful results. It’s thus a sort of agricultural metaphor for the love that binds all things, including the members of a family in crisis – people who care about one another and can work together to help each other sort out their problems for the betterment of everyone. And, when viewers see the bumper crop growing in the creekside bed, there’s considerable inspiration that can be drawn from the image – if only the family will allow themselves to see it as well.
This is important for those of us in the viewing audience, too. When we look at our fractured society these days, it’s crucial that we seek ways to heal it if we hope to survive. The squabbles that have come to set us apart – many of them overblown and inherently petty at that – must be resolved, and the healing balm that comes from our own personal versions of minari need to be tapped if we ever hope to realize such an outcome. This film provides us all with an enlightening and inspiring example to follow. Let’s hope we’re paying attention.
This movie, with its six Oscar nominations (including best director, original screenplay, score, actor (Yeun) and supporting actress (Youn)), is the one that deserves to win the award for best picture, flat out, hands down, no questions asked. Director Chung’s heartfelt semi-autobiographical drama is just the kind of movie that we need right now (much as “Moonlight” was the film we needed in 2016). The authenticity that pervades the narrative is truly astounding, never presenting a moment that seems forced or out of place. The picture’s exquisite cinematography, nuanced script and narrative, and superb ensemble cast make for a moving cinematic experience that leaves viewers with a warm glow that lasts long after the movie’s final frame. Richly deserving of the many accolades and award nominations it has received in various competitions thus far, “Minari” truly stands out among this year’s field of contenders, masterfully and lovingly handled in virtually every respect. I can’t speak highly enough about the quality of this film and its power to affect us, especially when it comes to helping heal an ailing nation. The film is playing in limited theatrical release and is available for online streaming.
“Minari” has received numerous accolades thus far, with more almost certainly to come. The picture was named an American Film Institute Movie of the Year and received a Golden Globe Award for best foreign language film. It also fared well with the National Board of Review, where it was named a Top 10 film and captured awards for best director and supporting actress (Youn), and in the Critics Choice Award competition, in which it was named best foreign language film and received the award for best young actor (Kim), along with eight additional nominations (best picture, ensemble, original screenplay, cinematography, score, director, actor (Yeun) and supporting actress (Youn)). In upcoming competitions, the film has earned three Screen Actors Guild Award nominations (best ensemble, actor (Yeun) and supporting actress (Youn)), six BAFTA Award nods (best foreign language film, supporting actor (Kim), supporting actress (Youn), director, score and casting) and six Independent Spirit Award nominations (best picture, director, screenplay, actor (Yeun) and supporting actress (Youn and Han)).
Having faith in ourselves and each other sometimes calls for considerable effort – so much so, in fact, that it might seem easier to throw in the towel. But, in the end, what would that accomplish, especially if we have goals we wish to achieve, objectives that are nearly always part of attaining that sought-after better tomorrow? That’s when we need to tap into our reserves of resolve. And, for good measure, we just might want to throw in a little minari, too.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
The Best and Worst of “2020”
My list of the year’s best and worst in cinema might be coming a little late “this year,” but, then, this was unlike any other “year” that preceded it – especially since it ended up being longer than 12 months! So, with that said, here’s what made my Top 10 and Bottom 10 for “2020,” along with my 10 honorable and dishonorable mentions and a handful of other films that I’ve deemed noteworthy or forgettable. Find out more by reading “The Top and Bottom 10 of 2020 (sort of)” by clicking here.
The Depths of the Power of Love
We’ve all been led to believe that “Love conquers all.” But is that really the case? Aren’t there situations that arise where, no matter how much love is present, it can’t solve every problem that arises? And, if so, then what? How can circumstances be resolved satisfactorily? Such is the dilemma raised in the heartwarming and heartbreaking new French love story, “Two of Us” (“Deux”) (web site, trailer).
Madeleine Girard (Martine Chevallier) and Nina Dorn (Barbara Sukowa) have been in love for years. They met while on vacation in Rome, and now, as they’re ready for retirement, Madeleine plans to sell her Paris apartment so that they can return to the Eternal City to live out their golden years together. There’s just one catch: Before Madeleine took up with Nina, she was married and had two children, and, after her husband died, she never told them about her same-sex relationship, even now as Anne (Léa Drucker) and Frédéric (Jérôme Varanfrain) have reached adulthood. They’re aware of their mother’s “friendship” with Nina, believing her to be Madeleine’s neighbor from across the hall, but they have no clue about the true nature of the connection between the two women. And that apartment across the hall is merely a safety valve, a sparsely furnished place for Nina to retreat to when the need arises, such as when Madeleine’s children come to visit.
Madeleine’s reluctance to come out to Anne and Frédéric has long been a source of contention between the partners. Nina has been open about her sexuality for years (except, of course, when around Madeleine’s family), and this difference in attitude has been an ongoing source of frustration for her, making Nina feel as though she has to walk on eggshells and artificially hide her true self when called upon. Nina’s encouraged, though, when Madeleine reveals that, due to the impending sale of her apartment, she plans to tell her children the truth about herself.
So why hasn’t Madeleine said anything to Anne and Frédéric previously? As someone who grew up at a time when opening up about one’s homosexuality was a risky proposition, she’s never been able to shed her hesitancy about violating this once-powerful taboo, despite society’s greater acceptance of the idea in recent years. In many ways, this truly is a case of not being able to teach an old dog new tricks. But there’s more to it than that; Anne and Frédéric have come to believe that their late father truly was their mother’s one and only great love, and Madeleine has not been able to bring herself to say anything that would shatter that illusion.
However, with such a big change now pending in Madeleine’s life, she feels she has to say something, and she decides to do so at her birthday dinner with Anne and Frédéric, as well as her grandson, Théo (Augustine Reyes), Anne’s son. But, when the time comes to open up, Madeleine backs down, and, when she tells Nina about this, she’s furious. They have a bitter argument, one that leaves their future in doubt and Madeleine shaking.
That future is quickly left in even greater doubt when Madeleine suffers a debilitating stroke, leaving her largely immobilized and completely unable to speak. Nina is ridden with guilt, believing that her angry outburst may have caused or contributed to the incident. She naturally wants to take care of Madeleine, partly to atone for behavior, but, more than anything else, because her partner is the one she loves. However, given that Madeline never told Anne and Frédéric about Nina, she’s quickly pushed to the sidelines. Madeleine’s children know nothing about the relationship and believe that Nina is nothing more than their mother’s friend and neighbor. So, when it comes to making decisions about Madeleine’s care, Nina suddenly finds herself out of the loop; those determinations are now in Anne and Frédéric’s hands, and about all Nina can do is sit back and watch.
Needless to say, this situation is unacceptable to Nina. She feels a need to be more involved, and, once Madeleine comes home, she looks for ways to do so. However, once again, since the truth of the relationship has been kept from Anne and Frédéric, she’s unable to have much say, especially once the children hire a home caretaker, Muriel (Muriel Bénazéraf), to attend to their mother. Nina slowly ingratiates herself with Anne and Muriel, looking for ways to provide friendly assistance, help that they welcome, at least in limited ways, and only under certain circumstances.
It’s during these brief times together that Nina comes to realize just how much she loves her partner. She misses the everyday ongoing contact with Madeleine that she had grown so accustomed to, and she wants it back, despite her depleted condition. However, how can Nina get past the gatekeepers who are restricting her access and who know nothing about the true nature of her relationship with their mother and patient? That’s the situation that’s about to unfold, marked by the emergence of an increasingly contentious scenario with much at stake. Is there enough love involved to overcome these trying circumstances? Can everyone’s needs be addressed? And will the truth at last come out?
In shaping the life we want for ourselves, honesty and authenticity generally win the day. That’s because those qualities reflect our true feelings, our beliefs about how we see ourselves. And those beliefs, in turn, are responsible for manifesting the existence we experience. Such notions are particularly important in matters of love, as they fuel the qualities and integrity of our relationships. In fact, in many respects, they’re what makes our romances succeed and flourish. This principle affects all aspects of our relationships, too, such as our connections to those around us, like family and friends. When we’re honest about our loves with those who care about us, it further enriches the quality of our romantic bonds, largely because everything is above board, with nothing hidden.
Unfortunately, that’s where Madeleine and Nina have gotten themselves into trouble. Madeleine’s inability to come forward about her true self has strained her relationship with Nina. In some ways, that hiding has also harmed her connection with Anne, Frédéric and even Théo. Since she’s not able to bring herself to be forthcoming with her family, her lack of truthfulness hurts her bond with them, almost as much as it does her relationship with Nina.
Madeleine’s reluctance in coming out is obviously rooted in fear, a belief in itself that can have tremendous and potentially damaging impact. She grew up with the frightfulness that was often associated with stepping forward about one’s sexuality, and it’s likely that she hasn’t been able to rid herself of that apprehension, despite the emergence of greater tolerance in recent years. But, just as important, there’s the fear of disappointing and disillusioning her children, not only about her orientation, but also about the nature of her relationship with their late father. She can’t bring herself to shatter that image out of fear that it will permanently damage her relationship with them. Of course, the more she holds on to that belief, the more ingrained those circumstances become, making it ever more difficult for her to change.
Getting past those fears and the limitations that they’ve imposed upon her is crucial if she ever hopes to find true contentedness and inner peace. Should she fail at this, she runs the risk of losing the love she’s forged with Nina. It also threatens to keep her relationship with Anne, Frédéric and Théo on tentative terms, preventing those bonds from blossoming and reaching their true, fullest potential. Admittedly, taking such a big step requires a leap of faith, a willingness to embrace ideas that will take Madeleine into uncharted territory, but it’s territory that holds the promise of even greater fulfillment than she’s ever experienced, both with Nina and her own family. It’s an act of heroism that can yield tremendous rewards, benefits that can potentially go far beyond anything imagined.
How and who we love has undergone tremendously liberating changes in recent years, but, for some seniors, who remember a time when such tolerance was absent, the past painfully lingers on into the present. Director Filippo Meneghetti’s debut narrative feature brings this to light in his intensely gripping and moving work, one that grabs viewers by the collar and makes the frustration experienced by its protagonists truly palpable – and quietly infuriating. The superb performances by Sukowa and Chevallier are riveting and heartfelt, achieving powerful impact with gestures as simple as facial expressions and piercing views into their eyes. There are a few incidents in the narrative that seem a bit far-fetched, especially in the film’s second half, but they’re compensated for by everything else this release has to offer. The pain and warmth of this one must be experienced by anyone with a conscience – or a pulse – to see that, no matter how far we have come, there’s always more ground still to be made up. This Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award nominee for best foreign language film is available for online streaming.
Despite the prevalence of love around us, it’s sometimes mystifying why it seems so hard to find, as anyone who has perused dating sites can probably attest. And, because of that, we should make it a point to cherish it with all our might when we find it, to do what we can to cultivate and nourish it so that it can bloom without reservation. That, of course, starts with us and how we view it, beginning with the beliefs that help to bring it into being in the first place. Once we realize that, we may be a lot less likely to get in our own way and unwittingly keep such a magnificent gift from coming our way.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Slaying the Wickedness of Predatory Behavior
Inflicting cruel intentions on others is a truly despicable act. But, as appalling as that is, it’s even worse when they’re camouflaged in what appears to be heartfelt, altruistic sincerity. The malice permeating such circumstances is staggering, leading to an array of indignities. Of course, such scenarios can also sow the seeds of retribution against the perpetrators, as an unscrupulous business owner discovers for herself in the bitingly cynical new dark comedy, “I Care a Lot” (web site, trailer).
Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) has got quite a sweet deal going for herself. As the owner of a legal guardianship agency, she assumes legal responsibility for the care of seniors who are unable to attend to their own needs, many of whom are afflicted with various forms of dementia and memory disorders. In many of those cases, the patients either have no families to provide care or their relatives are judged unsuitable in one way or another (negligent, abusive, disinterested, etc.). And Marla’s apparent sense of compassion is so seemingly heartfelt that she never has any trouble convincing courts to rule in her favor when it comes to awarding guardianship in these situations, particularly before an especially sympathetic justice, Judge Lomax (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). It all appears perfectly legitimate and above board. There’s just one catch: It’s all a well-orchestrated scam.
With the help of her partner in life (and partner in crime), Fran (Eiza Gonzalez), Marla has got her scheme down to a science. She identifies prospective “clients” with the aid of Dr. Karen Amos (Alicia Witt), a shady medical practitioner who supplies Marla with leads on patients who are easily railroaded into being declared unfit to maintain their independence, often in “emergency” court proceedings at which the individuals in question aren’t even present. Some of these patients truly suffer from various forms of impairment, but others are only marginally incapacitated at best. Marla’s new clients are then involuntarily transferred from their homes to a senior living residence managed by Sam Rice (Damian Young), who willingly complies with all of Marla’s requirements regarding medication, housing, access to outsiders and all other forms of care, all without any say by the patients or their kindreds. Marla’s plan generally isolates her clients so thoroughly that almost no one has any contact with them, and they, in turn, are unable to reach out to the outside world. And, as outrageous as that might seem, it’s all perfectly legal.
With her clients isolated, that leaves Marla free to do as she will when it comes to the management of their lives, most notably their assets – bank accounts, investments, property and so forth. Given her legal control over these items, she’s free to do whatever she wants with them. This usually involves their liquidation, with most of the proceeds going into her own pocket. She justifies this practice by claiming that the funds generated from such sell-offs and close-outs are necessary to cover her organization’s operating expenses. She gets away with it with relative ease, too. And, if a problem arises, she merely takes it before Judge Lomax, who nearly always rubber-stamps her requests. This becomes apparent, for example, in a case involving Mr. Feldstrom (Macon Blair), who is legally prevented from seeing his mother, based on trumped-up claims that his visits seriously upset her, a problem that Marla convincingly portrays as not being in her client’s best interests. Her slimy but well-rehearsed sincerity routine is so thoroughly persuasive that Judge Lomax can’t help but concur, an outcome that plays out over and over again in countless proceedings.
When one of Marla’s clients passes away unexpectedly – with the fleecing process still incomplete, an “investment” that doesn’t reach its full payoff potential – Sam advises her that there’s an opening in his facility for a new patient. This prompts Marla to visit Dr. Amos in search of a new client recommendation. Having helped out Marla many times in the past, Dr. Amos says she may have a prospect but adds that she wants a piece of the action this time, primarily because the individual in question is a “cherry” ripe for the picking. The mark is Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), a recently retired financial professional who has amassed more than a small fortune over the years, has begun showing modest signs of memory loss and has absolutely no known family members. She’s the kind of prospect for whom a plea for an emergency proceeding can easily be filed and, thanks to Judge Lomax’s dimwitted naïveté, is almost guaranteed to result in a ruling in Marla’s favor.
Before anyone knows it, Marla’s plan to rope Jennifer is a done deal. Needless to say, Jennifer is stunned and bewildered by what’s happening around her. She quickly finds herself whisked away from her beautifully appointed home and resettled in a comfortable but small two-room unit at Sam’s facility. Her cell phone is confiscated, and she’s confined in what amounts to a heavily secured institution that allows her no access to the outside world. She’s anxious to protest her conditions, but, given that Marla has given orders that she be heavily sedated, it’s unclear how seriously any such complaint might be taken.
From Marla’s perspective, everything seems to be going according to plan. However, before long, an unexpected hiccup emerges. While Fran is busy preparing Jennifer’s home for sale, she receives a visit from a cab driver (Nicholas Logan) seeking to pick up Jennifer for what appears to be a regular, previously scheduled ride. When Fran explains to the driver that Jennifer no longer lives there, he leaves somewhat surprised – and scared. Fran’s not sure what to make of it, but, when she explains the situation to Marla, she seems unfazed. It’s a position she seriously might want to reconsider.
In short order, Marla receives a visit at her office from lawyer Dean Ericson (Chris Messina), an oily shark of an attorney who claims to represent individuals interested in the welfare of Ms. Peterson. His lack of specificity leaves Marla unimpressed, prompting him to propose various forms of settlement, all of which she rejects, suspecting she can get more out of him than what he is offering. Ericson’s tone soon changes, moving from talks of compromise to less-than-veiled threats, contending that he’s associated with powerful individuals who care greatly about Jennifer’s well-being and who could inflict tremendous harm if their wishes are not complied with. No matter what he says, however, she repeatedly rebuffs his claims, essentially telling him to take a hike.
Little does Marla know that she’s embarked on quite a perilous course. This is confirmed when she pays a visit to Jennifer, who, with a sinister laugh and smug smile, tells Marla that she’s “in trouble now.” As it turns out, Marla is unaware that her client truly does have powerful contacts in her corner, most of them members of the Russian mob, most notably Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), a truly bad dude. He’s so ruthless, in fact, that he gravely intimidates his attorney, Mr. Ericson, and his chief muscle, Alexi Ignatyev, the purported cab driver who reluctantly and sheepishly had to report Jennifer’s mysterious absence to his now-furious boss. In light of Jennifer’s disappearance, Roman begins turning up the heat to find out what happened to her, an effort that places Marla and her cohorts in extreme danger. It sets up a scenario where a slick con artist is now faced with matching wits with a truly evil crime figure. And it’s a conflict that is bound to get exceedingly nasty, full of unexpected twists and turns, before anything is resolved – if that’s even possible at this point.
When we intentionally seek to deceive others, we’re playing with fire. Such acts, backed by nefarious motives, are time bombs waiting to go off – maybe not in the short term and perhaps not all at once, but certainly at some point. Some might call this karma or just deserts, and those designations are certainly fine. However, more precisely, they’re purposely created acts based on our intentions. And, when we concoct a toxic mix of intentions, the brew is quite volatile, just waiting to explode with vile repercussions when the time is right, as Marla and company are about to find out.
Hatching a scheme like the one Marla has cooked up involves purposely inflicting harm on others. She willingly seeks to bring about circumstances that fulfill this objective. What’s perhaps most egregious about this is that she knows what she’s doing and then intentionally does it, compounding those acts by lying to others with a phony smile that’s often erroneously interpreted as wholly sincere. And, if anyone dares question her earnestness, she’s prepared for that, too, by drumming up contingencies to cover her behind and make the pleadings of any claimants look foolish, as seen in her dealings with Mr. Feldstrom.
In a perverted sort of way, one could say that Marla’s plan is one of sheer genius in the way she has skillfully manipulated matters to her advantage. It shows tremendous dexterity in the way she has learned how to overcome the limitations that might restrain the more ethically minded among us in bringing about the results she seeks. In fact, on a purely theoretical level, some might even be in awe of how nimbly she pulls it all together.
But, such cleverness and proficiency aside, this scenario is fraught with all manner of moral issues, which, like everything else in our lives, stem from our beliefs. And there are some real doozies at work here, the consequences of which Marla can’t be oblivious to. That’s what accounts for her efforts in conjuring up those contingencies, stopgap measures aimed at protecting her interests should the need arise. However, even with her keen sense of being able to envision all of the situations for which such contingencies might be required, can Marla realistically prepare for them all? That’s especially true when it comes to those circumstances where the underlying moral issues of her scam come racing to the surface, sleeping giants that unexpectedly jump up and surprise her like a jack-in-the-box clown. It’s under conditions like that when the scam is susceptible to come crashing down, as Marla discovers in her dealings with Jennifer’s powerful associates.
No matter how creative we might be in coming up with plans to fulfill our goals, we must be cognizant of all of the intentions that go into their making. If we only pay attention to those that we assume will work to our benefit without giving due consideration to those that could work against us despite their undeniable presence, we place ourselves in serious jeopardy, for those unappealing notions will make their influence known at some point. And that’s simply due to their inclusion in the intention mix that brought about such scenarios in the first place, no matter how much we might try to disavow them or hope they fail to materialize.
This, of course, raises the question, “Can someone like Marla really get away with something like this?” Well, much rests with how thoroughly she manifests her protective contingencies. But success or failure also depends on how skillful her opponents are in developing effective counter-measures. And, based on what Mr. Lunyov appears capable of, Marla is about to have her hands full.
Perhaps the most important lesson to consider in all this is the consequences that accompany predatory behavior, which has been allowed to run rampant here. In a voice-over at the film’s opening, Marla waxes philosophically about this notion, and she unabashedly admits to being like a lioness that is determined to relentlessly hunt down her prey. That kind of determination and self-confidence have obviously played huge roles in her heretofore success. However, given the powerful ethical issues that permeate such practices here, can she sustain that success indefinitely?
In a sense, Marla’s story becomes a metaphor for the practice of predatory capitalism. It’s a scathing indictment of a system that puts profits and self-interest before people, one in which the game is rigged from the outset and most of the players have absolutely no say in their participation. What’s more, this metaphor operates in this film on several levels. First there’s the individual scale, as evidenced by the indignities that Marla thrusts upon Jennifer. But then there’s also the global scale, as symbolized by the parties involved in this dispute – an American businesswoman doing battle with a Russian mobster. The symbolism behind this conflict speaks volumes about the sheer scope of this practice as it’s applied on a worldwide scale, a truly scary and infuriating prospect. That’s especially apparent when the resolution of their combat is revealed, providing a chilling reflection of what’s really going on in the wider world.
From this standpoint, one might arguably view the situation as hopeless. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why this film has come under ridicule by some viewers and critics. They’re unable to sympathize with either of the combatants, and they lament that there’s no way for those who have been dealt out of the game to get back in. But there are always infinite possibilities to choose from in shaping our destinies as long as we’re able and willing to envision their realization. That, in itself, should give us hope, to provide us with the inspiration to devise ways of overcoming such seemingly intractable conditions. And, if we can do that, then maybe – just maybe – the predatory capitalists won’t be able to get away with it after all.
Seeing the ugly truth exposed in all its vile splendor may be unpleasant, hurtful and shocking, but sometimes it’s a necessary wake-up call for the betterment of our collective well-being, as this cynical, darkly satirical comedy and social commentary illustrates, especially with regard to the nature of predatory capitalism. While the film admittedly goes off the rails at times in its second half, its wickedly biting humor makes clear the ruthlessness inherent in the practices of this economic system, both on a personal and a global geopolitical scale. What makes the film, though, are its superb performances, especially those of Wiest, Dinklage, and, especially, Golden Globe Award winner Pike, who delivers a riveting portrayal throughout. Some may find the content and message of this offering rather troubling, but that’s simply the movie doing its job: It stresses the need for us to shed our Pollyanna attitudes, no matter how disillusioning that might be, and to open our eyes. Indeed, it reminds us of the old adage that it’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they’ve been fooled. The film is available for online streaming.
We’re no doubt aware that it’s possible to fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but not all of the people all of the time. Nevertheless, the perpetrators in this story don’t seem to buy into that notion, a view they maintain at their peril, especially when confronted by equally adept crime figures (not to mention a mountain of karma). And, when up against such challenging circumstances, it doesn’t matter how much one might claim to care.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.