Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"There's ways of killing yourself without killing yourself.": Pablo Larraín's Tony Manero (2008)

Raúl Peralta has next to nothing going for him as he is nearing the end of his fifty-second year on the planet. It's 1978 and Raúl, like everyone else living in Santiago de Chile, is in a constant state of fear and paranoia due to General Augusto Pinochets' oppressive control of his homeland. With barely enough change in his pocket for food, and with the military and police on every corner, Raúl only finds solace when he visits his local theater on an almost daily basis to watch John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. After becoming obsessed with that film's main character, Raúl sets in motion his dream of being selected as the best 'Tony Manero' on a local talent show. To help achieve this dream, Raúl leads a small group of local dancers at a bar paying tribute to the film and Travolta's character. Staring into his mirror at every chance he gets, Raúl sees himself as a Chilean matinee idol, a big dreamer in a world where dreams are crushed on a daily basis...Raúl Peralta: dreamer, dancer, sociopath, serial killer.

Released theatrically in 2008, Pablo Larraín's Tony Manero is one of the most disturbing and effective films I have seen in quite a long time. A ferocious and unflinching character study that follows a very dangerous and deranged man on a foolish journey that is destined to end in tragedy, Tony Manero is a remarkably intense and ugly work that is as compulsively watchable as it is hard to take. In the several days since I have seen it for the first time, there are images and moments that keep rushing back to me, like a particularly twisted dream I can't shake.

Sandwiched between Fuga (2006) and Post Mortem (2010), Tony Manero is the second of, so-far, three features from talented Chilean writer and director Pablo Larraín. Displaying a real sense of visual audacity and thematic fearlessness, Larraín is one of the most interesting young voices in all of modern world cinema. Born in Chile in 1976 (coincidentally the year that the basis for Saturday Night Fever, Nik Cohn's "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night", was published) Larraín has had a life-long interest in film which led him to study directing in his twenties before finally founding his own company, Fabula, before his thirtieth birthday. Each of his three films have been greeted with a mixture of unabashed acclaim and sharp criticism, with Tony Manero drawing the most heated discussions. Like many of his filmmaking idols from the seventies, Larraín isn't afraid to focus his camera on man's darkest desires and instincts and his particular voice is very needed in our now often sanitized cinematic landscape.

Driven by the disquieting and devastating performance of Larraín's go-to actor Alfredo Castro, who is as good here as De Niro was in Scorsese's equally caustic if less deadly The King of Comedy (1983), Tony Manero is the kind of penetrating character study that sadly we are seeing less and less of these days. Larraín's camera rarely lets Castro out of his frame and we follow his every move from very human moments like attempting to dye his greying hair black, to monstrous actions like beating an elderly woman to death just so he can steal her TV to help pay for a new dance floor. Castro plays every moment to perfection with a sharp and expertly realized performance that never panders for sympathy or tips over-the-line into just mere psychotic caricature. This is a beautifully controlled performance that is among the best of the last decade.

Shot in a deliberately harsh and gritty grey tone by cinematographer Sergio Armstrong (who also shot both of Larraín's other features), Tony Manero oozes an ominous and nightmarish ennui that thematically fits in perfectly well with paranoid filled boredom that surely haunted so many lives effected living under such an oppressive dictatorship. The characters here wait for nothing but a dreaded knock on the door. They walk fearing what is around every corner, they have sex without passion and they dream of lives they fear they will never have. Saturday Night Fever might seem an odd choice for a character like Raúl Peralta to fixate on in a film as harsh as Tony Manero, but one has to remember how truly troubled and, at times, despicable John Travolta's character was in Saturday Night Fever, which was in reality one of the darkest 'blockbusters' America ever produced. While he copies Travolta's famous dance moves, Raúl can ultimately only relate to that darkness, a fact that is really brought to light in a terrifying sequence where he savagely murders a theater worker for showing that much brighter Travolta seventies blockbuster, Grease (1978).

Tony Manero has been described as a black comedy and if that is the case then the comedy escaped me completely. There is nothing in the film, whether it be the scenes where Raúl attempts to make his aging body do Travolta's difficult dance moves to the film's brutal and cold murder sequences, that I found remotely funny. The scenes of graphic violence are particularly shocking as they come without warning in the film, almost as if Raúl's intentions are buried so far in his subconscious that not even he is truly aware of them. Even the film's occasional sex scenes are filled with such an intense dread that they are perhaps among the most un-erotic I have ever seen. If Tony Manero was meant as some sort of dark comedy, ala The King of Comedy or Jimmy Hollywood, then that aspect is a failure to me, but I still see this is a major and masterful work from a filmmaker with a lot of guts and vision.

Tony Manero premiered in Chile in the summer of 2008 and it spent the next year playing at various festivals (including Cannes) before Chile submitted it as their entry at the 2009 Academy Awards. The film, Larraín and Castro all won several awards along the way but by the time it hit America for a brief run it was greeted with a mostly muted reception. My friend James Hanson over at Out 1 even went so far as to say that Tony Manero was the only film that he 'really hated' at the 2008 New York Film Festival, which I think shows that this is a polarizing work that probably won't leave too many viewers in any sort of middle-ground mood.

While import DVDs of Tony Manero contained some interviews and behind the scenes material, the Region 1 DVD from Kino has no extras. Still, at least the film is readily available for American audiences and it can currently be seen on HBO's schedule for those who can't track down the DVD.

Much more disturbing and frightening than most modern horror films, Tony Manero won't be a work for everyone but I highly recommend it for anyone who hasn't seen it. While it will be awhile before I revisit it again, I doubt I will be shaking the memory of the film or the look in Alfredo Castro's eyes in the closing shot anytime soon.


JeanRZEJ said...

I think 'black comedy' is a poorly defined term to begin with, which causes all sorts of problems understanding it as a categorization. I think it's most reasonably defined as 'that which you would be comedic if it weren't so tragic or disturbing'. As such, laughter often doesn't result, or doesn't mean the same thing. I read a book on the subject as it relates to theater and the author categorized dark comedy aka black comedy aka tragicomedy as a method of presenting events in a manner where the audience will achieve some distance, as if it were a comedy, but to be reigned in by the seriousness of its presentation to the point where tension cannot be released, even in a laugh. I relate the situation to a nervous laugh, where the laugh is an expression of tension rather than a release as with normal comedy. That 'morbid humor' is synonymous makes it all the more muddled, as well as the most well known examples of 'black comedy' in film being blends and variants, like Dr. Strangelove, which is certainly farcical to some degree.

As such, Tony Manero is a black comedy of sorts, because the character is ridiculous and deranged but the reality of the situation replaces the humor with tension. It's a common trait of black comedy to have a very 'unlikable' protagonist in order to prevent close identification and thus achieve an emotional distance. Sometimes this distance creates absolute revulsion, which this film probably does to a lot of people. This, I think, is all well and good, as it's certainly not a blueprint for life. People that idolize Travis Bickle are terrifying. I wasn't much of a fan of the film, but I tend to find psychologically deranged characters existing in a 'real world' to be very infertile topics for stories, anyway. Black comedy is great for exploring grey areas, and with psychopaths the issue tends to become very black. There's something to the way the film completely evades comedy, so perhaps I'd find it most interesting if I watched it again as an exercise in developing pure tension, but I just found it rather base on first watch. You seemed to find this when you said, ' sex scenes as filled with such an intense dread that they are perhaps among the most un-erotic I have ever seen.' Comparing it to a similar film with a similar cinematographic style, Grandrieux's Sombre, I greatly prefer the latter film because its head-on examination of a psychopath so totally twisted the tropes of horror to the point where atmosphere became the film's overriding feature. There are so many scenes in that film which achieve the sort of distorted atmosphere which you describe in the sex scene, but the violence isn't nearly as foregrounded as it is in Tony Manero. With Tony Manero it always remained plot, and it seemed like a bottomless abyss. I see the black comedy, I just don't see the point, or if I did then it didn't work well for me. It was interesting, and perhaps looking at it from a different perspective would change my outlook, but I never found an approach which gave me an 'in'. Certainly the film's style, performance, and tone were all strong, but I was unable to contextualize it in any meaningful manner. Was there a certain way of looking at the film that allowed you to take away some contextual merit? It resembles a black comedy, but I don't think that's the proper framework to approach the film. It seems to burrow into the character moreso than branch out into broader ideas. I guess this one just left me clueless.

Jeremy Richey said...

Hey JeanRZEJ,
Thanks so much for the very detailed and interesting comments. I'm always happy when something I write helps inspires a reaction so I really appreciated reading yours. Thanks again.