Mar 1, 2014

Motifs in Cinema (2013): Crime and Punishment

This article belongs to Andrew Kendall’s Motifs in Cinema series. In the following paragraphs, I will discuss the different ways in which Crime and Punishment were portrayed across a number of films released in the previous calendar year. As such and despite my best efforts, mild spoilers regarding the plots of the following films can be expected:
The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, Fruitvale Station, 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips, A Hijacking, Ernest & Celestine, The Unspeakable Act, Night Moves, Neighboring Sounds

One of the biggest cinematic stories of the year was the controversy surrounding Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. The detractors of the film bemoaned the absence of clear-cut condemnation for the financial atrocities committed by billionaire Jordan Belfort. The film, a satirical, relentless take on the excesses of Belfort’s rise to Wall Street fortune, does not explicitly denounce his lifestyle; yet, it instills a feeling of discomfort in the audience by thrusting them into Jordan's never-ending cycle of moral, ethical and financial deviance. That the film remains mostly true to the real life story is rather more disturbing than what approach Scorsese takes to this story. That Belfort is roaming the streets free – having spent less than a mere two years in prison – is infinitely more unforgivable than Terrence Winter’s crime of removing didacticism from his screenplay. Nevertheless, the real world tension between institutional crime and punishment, or lack thereof, is at the heart of the debate. That any film would have ability to start such a conversation is worth applauding.

Thanks to the awards-centric mentality that shapes much of the cinematic dialogue near the end of the year, comparisons between The Wolf of Wall Street and David O. Russell’s American Hustle were nearly inescapable. Russell’s film takes inspiration from Scorsese crime (and punishment) classic, Goodfellas, but the ensemble acting and cinematic influences aren’t the only connecting elements between the two films. Though Russell and his team take artistic liberty with the ABSCAM scandal, theirs is effectively also a tale of criminals that enter the system, play with its rules from within, and exit unscathed. The crucial difference between the two films is that in the latter, the system doesn’t applaud or protect the criminals; it simply can’t overcome their shrewdness. The criminals may resume their lives in the end, but not before dragging the corrupt establishment down.

If the institution protects the wealthy criminals in The Wolf of Wall Street and dances to their tune in American Hustle, its role in Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station is rather more alarming, for not only is it a policeman - a public service agent - who commits the crime here, but also that the harrowing true story of Oscar Grant’s murder is so recent and yet, already forgotten. When Michael B. Jordan utters the gut-wrenching “You shot me! I got a daughter” line, it isn’t just the emotional punch of seeing a young father vanish that brings us to tears, but the knowledge that even in the second decade of the 20th century, America’s treatment of the lower rungs of its society, and particularly Black and Hispanic communities, stands at such sharp contrast to the privileges of the rich. Fruitvale Station is a reminder that crimes such as Grant’s death are sadly a more common occurrence that we would like to believe and that the punishment rarely ever arrives. 

Whereas Coogler tackles issues of race and a problematic judicial system in modern America, British filmmaker Steve McQueen looks further back at the history of racial inequality in 12 Years a Slave. To deem slavery a crime that went unpunished for far too long is to grossly understate one of the biggest institutionalized crimes against humanity. McQueen doesn’t compromise in showing us the everyday horrors that millions of men and women faced; he turns his unflinching gaze on the sight of a woman’s brutal flogging or a man left to struggle millimetres away from death on muddy grounds. The offenders never faced reprimand for the despicable abuse they inflicted on their victims, so punishment is unavoidably absent from McQueen’s film. But on the grander scheme of things, the film is a brutally frank lesson in the dark history that has woven racism into the fabric of American culture.

Both Fruitvale and Slave take on the perspective of their victims and look crime in the face, ferociously but also helplessly. The protagonist of Dallas Buyers Club does not accept helplessness as an option, though his is a curious case that blurs the boundaries between the criminal and the victim. Putting aside concerns about the film’s historical accuracy, its version of Ron Woodroof is wounded by AIDS but is by no means a sympathetic character. The film lauds him for his support for the patients in need, but also willingly admits that Woodroof’s interest in finding the cure for AIDS, irrespective of the means, is rooted in the personal and financial benefit he stands to gain. This double-edged characterization is fitting, because regardless of how many lives were saved with the help of his scheme, Woodroof was undoubtedly a lawbreaker. That his crime is the hook that Dallas Buyers Club uses to draw us in and gain our sympathies makes the film unique among this crop. Punishment for Woodroof would be equal to the loss of many lives; few films put their audiences in an ethical dilemma like that.

Unlike Dallas Buyers Club, the American government is on the side of our protagonist in the Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips, a masculine, muscular examination of the process of penalizing the Somali pirates that hijacked an American cargo ship. Captain Phillips dedicates more time than any other film on this list to mapping out the process of punishment with painstaking detail. The film is a stellar display of Greengrass’s prowess as one of the best action directors working today, and it rightly leaves a lot of political questions unanswered. One can hardly blame the American navy for taking the “easy” option by punishing the hijackers with one bullet each, but Captain Phillips draws out this process, which not only enhances the intensity of the situation, but allows the audience to consider the ethical correctness of responding to violence with even more forceful violence.

Coincidentally, Captain Phillips was not the only film to tell the story of Somali hijacking last year; Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking did much the same and with a keener eye for the machinations of global politics. Devoting equal time to the plight of hijacked sailors and the members of the board of the company that operates their ship, A Hijacking has the audacity to put the dramatic weight of this hectic, terrifying situation on the shoulders of phone conversations between Danish businessmen in suits in their swanky Copenhagen office and the Somali pirates that hold the crew hostage on the ship. The end result isn’t just interesting for cinematic reasons, but also because the onus of punishing the hijackers is put on the audience. There are no easy routes to avenging justice, only multiple shades of ethical complexity and nebulous definitions of moral victory.

A Hijacking wasn’t the only European film with a prominent crime and punishment motif; the modestly scaled, intimately drawn, French animated film, Ernest & Celestine, had a surprisingly rich and layered approach to studying the intricacies of judicial systems. Although the film is simple enough for its intended audience to follow, the story of a mouse and a bear forming a forbidden friendship in the face of their respective communities’ vehement disapproval, affords the filmmakers the opportunity to allegorically discuss issues such as racial integration. Ernest & Celestine sweetly conveys that our perceptions of right and wrong are fluid subjects and what is considered a crime in the society – (symbolic) interspecies integration, as is the case here – can become a perfectly acceptable fact of life. That the film remains consistently entertaining and includes an impeccably designed court sequence while working in its implicit lessons for children is a true stroke of genius.

Ernest & Celestine’s Oscar nomination will increase the film’s visibility, which is more than can be said about the next film on the list: Dan Sallit’s brilliant and challenging film, The Unspeakable Act. The crime at the heart of this story is the taboo topic of incest, which is discussed with refreshing frankness here. But what sets the rather poignantly titled The Unspeakable Act apart from the rest of this list is that the criminal and the punisher in this film is the same person: Jackie Kimball (a superb Tallie Medel), a teenage girl who idolizes his brother to the point of obsession. As Jackie’s desires are unrequited and only vaguely expressed to her brother, our only conduit to her mind is a series of conversations with her psychologist, through which the immorality of an incestuous relationship is dissected, contextualized and philosophized. Consequently, the punishment for Jackie’s “thought crime” is a gradual process of self-realization, rather than delivered in a single moment. Paradoxically, this lack of catharsis with regards to any retribution means that The Unspeakable Act spends more time intellectually scrutinizing the crime than any other film on the list.

Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, Night Moves, has yet to be released theatrically following its fall festival tour, but any conversation on crime in cinema wouldn’t be complete without its inclusion. The film tells the story of three eco-terrorists (Eisenberg, Fanning, Sarsgaard) whose power dynamics and disagreements over the cause and the process of their crime reveals interesting truths about the nature of political activism and group criminal activities. The three of them view their plan as something akin to vandalism and a step for the greater good, therefore it is not until this plan goes awry and the consequences ripple out of control that their intentions and differences come to light. I shall refrain from exposing any further details about the plot as Night Moves is a film best viewed cold; suffice it to say that aftermath of the crime, which deals more with guilt and paranoia than punishment will be among the best things the silver screen has to offer in the next twelve months.

Finally, it is one of my favorite films of the year with which I would to close the book on the concept of crime and punishment in 2013 cinema: Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s assured debut film, Neighboring Sounds. This is a film that subverts our expectations of the language of cinema; it provides social context and defines geopolitical space with intoxicating images and atmospheric sounds. It’s an astonishing accomplishment, but also a trickier proposition with regards to the scope of this article than everything discussed above, because while it is explicitly about preventing crime in a middle class community in the town of Recife, those crimes are neither spoken of directly nor committed.

In Neighboring Sounds, the community is riddled with corruption and violence to the point of casual obliviousness. The addition of a mysterious security crew for the gated community creates a peculiar environment for the neighborhood and the audience alike, and this eerie tone is carried throughout the film until the anticlimactic, but incredibly rewarding finale. Emphasizing the inescapability of crime as the film closes on a burst violence that is only vaguely founded on past familial conflicts, Neighboring Sounds leaves us with a sense of unease. Therein rests its magic, for it convinces that our societies can become desensitized to crime, to the point that all the paranoia, the nervousness, the conflicts and the violence can become part of a never-ending vicious cycle. Every other film provokes our angst against misdemeanor, neglect and brutality. Every one of them makes us yearn for justice where there is none. Yet, no film conveyed this message more elegantly, succinctly or stylishly than Neighboring Sounds. Ironically, it is also the one film on the list that features no crime and no punishment.


  1. Because I am part of the (maybe) tiny group of persons crying for NO didacticism in art this particularly motif always leaves me questioning where I stand on it. It's why I'm always drawn to films which instead of aiming to punish the crimes on screen but representing the state of the world where evil does not always get is comeuppance is key.

    Even as I'm not as rapturous about 12 YEARS A SLAVE as I want to be it affects its greatest poignancy for me in two moments: Oduye's speech on her crying being all that she can do (still my MVP) and the moment where Patsy cries out to Solomon when he leaves. The realisation that there is no real retribution to get from their struggles is depressing but profound.

    (It's also why AMERICAN HUSTLE leaves a vaguely nasty taste in my mouth. The way Russell is pitched as the character to suffer (for his folly) because he comes into opposition to our protagonists ends up seeming so at odds with the film's insistence on having no repercussions for everyone else makes the moment just a bit off for me.)

  2. wow, you picked some great films that i still need to catch. Ernest & Celestine is one of them. i totally agree with your thoughts on captain Phillips and fruitvale station.

  3. Greast post! There's a few on here I still need to catch, and I'm really looking forward to Night Moves.

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