Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Taking Chance (2009)

For a film of such clarity, Taking Chance opens in a deceiving, oblique way. It opens with two soldiers approaching the house of a fallen soldier, Chance Phelps, presumably to confront the family about his unfortunate and untimely death. They knock on the door and by now, the atmosphere is unsettling and anxious and the viewer can feel it. However, the film takes a left turn. In a typical film, the parents open the door, the soldiers inform them of this tragedy, and the parents proceed to sob over a swooning, overtly melancholic score. However, in this film, the soldiers knock on the door, to which it immediately cuts to the opening credits. This moment activates the viewer’s mind and provokes the thought of every possibility of the encounter between these characters. The viewer is still left uneasy, but strangely satisfied, as they have experienced one of the most cryptic, thought-provoking moments in film history. And it all goes uphill from there.

HBO has always possessed my deepest respect. A lot of their work is currently unseen by me, and by that, I mean all of their adult television shows. However, their body of work has always provoked intrigue from yours truly, due to their layered, meaty premises and boat-loads of critical and audience praise. Plus, their kids’ shows of HBO Family have thoroughly elated me due to their intelligence, simplicity, composition, and idiosyncrasy. In terms of Emmys, HBO has been more voracious than McDonald’s customers. 

Another HBO area of intrigue for me can be found through their television films, which, like their television shows, are varied in concept, but unified in praise. Their telefilm concepts have ranged from life in Lackawanna, NY during the ‘50s and ‘60s to a biography of Temple Grandin, which I have proudly labeled as my all-time favorite film.

With this film, HBO has created probably their most dense, thorough, and spellbinding concept to date: the process of bringing a fallen soldier home. The film revolves around Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl (Kevin Bacon). After the aforementioned Chance is killed during service, Strobl volunteers to transport his body to DuBois, Wyoming, his final resting place. What follows is an accumulative odyssey full of nuance. Oh, and there are some scenes involving Michael with his family. Those scenes are extraneous for this film. They aren’t clearly defined, developed, or interesting. The kids are just…the kids. The wife is just the woman who cooks and supports Michael emotionally. Because, ostensibly, that’s the only thing wives are good for.

On a visceral level, however, this film is a powerhouse. There is hefty dramatic tension and weight that lingers over the whole film. A brilliant aspect of the film is the lack of prior character development of Chance. The film knows that he doesn’t need any. We may not know the lost life, but it is still a lost life. We know that this was, at one point, a living, breathing human being, who had friends, family, ambitions, and dreams. We may not know them, but the fact that they were present, but no longer are is profound enough.

The additional sheer brilliance of the emotional texture is how controlled it is. It could’ve been easy to elicit emotion via crying fits and turning gruff men into little crybabies, but instead, it is executed modestly and nakedly. The secret is that it relies on the tense premise and holds back. This makes the slightest tear, glance, or sigh intensely sober and oh-so sad. And I mean spine tingling, bone-chillingly, achingly sad. The screenplay also allows itself to unfold into applicable revelations. Consider a scene where Michael gets off the plane and meets with someone else affiliated with the military. They have a conversation and the man reveals something that’s one of the most tense and eloquent moments in the film. As predicted, the climactic funeral scene is as every bit emotional. All of this build-up proves to not be pointless or squandered. And the ending! The end credits make a revelation that not only pertains to Chance’s life, but also to the film itself. I won’t dare ruin it for you, but let me say that combined with the funeral scene nearly turned me into a puddle of misery. I escaped crying, however. Just barely.

There is one specific value that provides strong thematic subtext: respect. The constant salutes, the patriotic symbolism, and even this one scene involving pictures of previous wars add a deeper layer of elegy and poetry. However, there’s an even deeper layer of respect that may remain undissected by everyone else: the shrewd respect of the filmmakers to enhance the experience on a sensory level. The sight of blood, the feel of his stiff, unresponsive hand, the way the film shows us his dead body, but we never see his face; all of these details give the film a more raw, gritty vibe and just add on as an technique for emotion. Also, for a movie that takes place during the Iraq War, it never delves into tawdry, pandering, self-important political messages. It’s not about that. It’s about the chronicle of one man put in a nerve-wracking yet vital position.

I could fawn over the technical craft of this for hours. The cinematography is excellent. It’s shot in an absolute, pristine condition that’s utterly majestic. This, along with the expansive color palette, covers a tonal spectrum that ranges from positive and regular to brooding and introspective. In addition, a great score has been constructed. Like the camerawork and visuals, the score covers a wide variety of moods on the tonal spectrum, too. It ranges from grand frothiness to unsettling heartbreak, but never overblowing it. These elements give the film a restrained yet noticeable scope that, additionally, augments the viewing experience.

Now, I am just dancing around the obvious subject for praise: Kevin Bacon. Whenever I think of that name, I always imagine that charming, innocuous pretty-boy persona that got him a slew of light-hearted comedies, likeable schlock like Tremors, and need we mention Footloose? However, I, and I’m sure many other people, forget that he has done some pretty deep, effective performances. Either way, it is astonishing to see the progression of this actor. Going from his debut film, National Lampoon’s Animal House, to what maybe his most mature and committed performance I’ve seen from him. Any thought and memory of his old, harmless persona is tossed away as he adopts an authoritative attitude and a macho yet haunting stare. Bravo to the Bacon!

I predict big things ahead for first-time director, Ross Katz, who spent the majority of his life co-producing films about homosexuality and a couple of films that wounded up with a Best Picture nomination. He is as humble yet as confident as a director that I’ve seen. And with a detailed, apolitical script, competent technical artistry, a committed, transcendent performance by Kevin Bacon, and sizzling, masterful emotion, Taking Chance is as humble and yet confident a film I’ve ever seen.

RATING: Three-and-three quarters stars out of four

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