Film Reviews

Luckily, Alex Garland Has Already Quit His Day Job

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Alex Garland quit. This is both objective fact (he’s announced he’s to “stop directing for the foreseeable future”) and an assumption (by the time Jesse Plemons stumbles onscreen to sleepily mumble a drawn out FAR CRY cutscene, I was certain his latest motion picture, CIVIL WAR, had completely given up). After all, the English mind is an undeveloped, primordial sludge. Assign some sci-fi director from TERF Island a 2022 folk horror throwback and prompt them to come up with the scariest thing they can think of and you’ll naturally receive “What if a man gave birth?” Neither feckless nor informed, A24 and Alex Garland’s CIVIL WAR—about a titular military coup d’état of a corrupt White House—is the chief violator of my usual Garland complaint: I’d much rather a movie be stupid than simple. CIVIL WAR doesn’t add much to the polarized social discord in this country that’s tearing us apart more than the abolition of slavery, apparently, because, as is tradition with his screenplays, Alex Garland is infatuated with concepts that are specifically new to only him. His EX-MACHINA, ANNIHILATION, MEN trilogy is a maudlin, silly odyssey into a man considering (with painstaking skepticism) that women have internal struggles that he may be the direct cause of, and CIVIL WAR is a novel addition to the mix as a script cryogenically frozen in June 2015 and thawed out before us now.

While I found the genesis of CIVIL WAR’s civil war clearer than some viewers angry over the film never outright explaining the history of the conflict, I certainly have some core logistical questions. Like, surely CIVIL WAR’s president forcibly remaining in office for a third term hasn’t riled up Americans this badly. What’d he really do? What was the secret sauce that fomented the unspoken liberal fantasy of Commiefornia SJWs and MAGA Texas cousin-fuckers joining forces to kill Donald Trump with hammers? War is the great economic stimulus, so unless Gavin “Gruesome” Newsom locked arm and arm with Greg “Somebody Please Plant Another Oak Tree in His Yard’ Abbott to lower their respective unemployment rates by opening bullet factories for domestic terror usage, I’m going to need a smidge more than Evil Ron Swanson. All I’m seeing is the mass desecration of Black bodies, and this country is historically unmoved by that, so what fucking happened? Was the president Black Wall Streeting nonstop? What could he have possibly done to warrant this response? Did the guy ban TikTok?

And what does an image cost? What is a journalist’s payday looking like in this economy? To what degree is documentation of trauma motivated by capital? Are these reporters in it for the love of the game, or for some existential responsibility towards preserving American history? You’re telling me a bunch of Texans and Californians are storming the White House with ARs and not one of them is live-streaming it to Kick so they can milk subscriptions to pay a family member’s chemotherapy bills? God, could you imagine an ending where Cailee Spaeny’s Jesse finally snaps a photo of the dead president’s body, but is immediately usurped by a crummy phone pic from one of the Republic of California troopers that was uploaded to Facebook hours before she could develop hers? And, let’s rewind way further back, these three staffers—and their employers—are cool with an unaffiliated freelancer in their car? You’re telling me no one else is dashing along the same Southeastern highways to retrieve photographic proof of the president’s execution? Reporters are congregating in hotel bars and taking orders from mainstream outlets, but you’re telling me this road trip to DC isn’t going to turn into a WACKY RACES episode where Dick Dastardly lures the Telemundo journalists into paramilitary gunfire? News writers are ruthless to one another now, and that’s with JCPenney still open. Even Penelope Pitstop is going to call ICE on The Guardian staffers so she can snap an Android pic of the president’s fully bled corpse first. 

Reuters has no channels of entry across America? Kirsten Dunst’s Lee has no connects along the way? You’re hitting the road to The Capitol raw?! Who’s funding the news media in an ecosystem where journalists are slaughtered on sight? The futility of the trade is rarely questioned, even as every civilian the film encounters indicates they don’t watch the news. It’s speculative fiction with no speculation, so absently thoughtless that it can trick viewers into thinking it is functioning in the political abstract. It’s a movie about American violence reflecting itself back onto American viewers? I suppose so, because Garland is using graphic Black and Brown death as a tonal signifier that this is not fun action-movie violence, but punishing and contemplative artistic violence. What is the entirety of American cinema if not already a reflection of our violence? And in the grand scheme of global massacres, Garland presents us with modest bloodshed. At that point, I’d rather watch THE SEARCHERS!

Civil War Still

In the first 10 minutes, Lee and Jesse are taking photos of scuffles between civilians and state authority, but we nor they ever know over what or who escalated a protest stand-off into a full-blown assault, which, you know, would be questions that come with the job of photojournalism. CIVIL WAR doesn’t question who threw the first brick, instead surmising that the violence itself is the sin. So many corpses hanging off overpasses, but who are they for? What are they warning? Who is stringing up who? The film knows, but it obscures the answers to manipulate a fraudulent, cheap thesis. It’s easy to shrug off CIVIL WAR as a European’s concept of American politics—in contrast with, say, Wim Wenders, CIVIL WAR is the apotheosis of the modern European in America, with the PARIS, TEXAS filmmaker adoring the country as a ship in a bottle and Garland meekly shaping a future he’s sussed out in a distracted pocket of his brain—but these are universal ideas he’s fumbling. There is more consideration shown towards taking the stairs or the elevator to the 10th floor of a hotel suffering power outages than any guiding ideology in the twilight of an ongoing coup; it’s a minor scene that may be the film’s most major misfire, teeing up the viewer to be asking hyper-specific questions about the world of CIVIL WAR that, subsequently, CIVIL WAR has no interest in answering.

There’s a meager attempt at replicating APOCALYPSE NOW’s bridge sequence during the crew’s run-in with combatting snipers at an abandoned Christmas display. When asked “What’s in that house?” the annoyed 20-something scout turns to the fresh meat and asks her. She goes, “Someone shooting.” He turns back and smugly repeats: “Someone shooting.” No one knows who’s commanding who, nor who’s firing at whom for what, which makes sense in the literal and manufactured fog of The Vietnam War, but the ambiguous chaos of CIVIL WAR purports fog as the natural state of combat. The widely professed “both sides” critique stems less from an actual exploration of the fictional world, and more from an outright disgust for political violence. Which, uh, I mean, sure guys, yeah, alright, all political violence is bad, okie-dokie. If you didn’t know what the Nazis did, I’m sure the Russian whooping at Stalingrad looked pretty horrific, too. Scorsese’s SHUTTER ISLAND is a great movie literally about that: how the horrific viscera of tolerated violence can break your brain harder than traditionally criminal violence could. God, guys, let’s pack in and watch SHUTTER ISLAND, my treat.

A24 and Rose Glass’s LOVE LIES BLEEDING befell the similar fate of adding such few contemporary charms that it needed to be judged less as homage and more as a direct competition with its influences (there’s no soul to Glass’s characters, and the interpersonal dynamics are so rote that there’s no reason to not just be watching ONE FALSE MOVE for your kick of tawdry sophistication). Would you like to watch a subpar road trip movie from a guy who’s desperately citing COME AND SEE, or would you like to watch COME AND SEE? Perhaps I could interest you in the “photojournalism in revolutionary conflict as a reflection of the American id” of UNDER FIRE, THE KILLING FIELDS, or SALVADOR? Every January 1st it’s as though the lot of y’all hit a cultural reset, because explain how CHILDREN OF MEN used to be the only movie anyone ever referenced to, now, CIVIL WAR being called anything other than a certified snoozer. The film is convinced the filmmaking is muscular enough to coast off it alone, however, “Cuaron + Chivo” Alex Garland and Rob Hardy certainly are not—the impact as an apolitical action-thriller is multiple notches below a Scott Adkins Redbox brawler.

Civil War Still 2 BTS

Garland struck the ideal balance with 28 DAYS LATER, an atmospheric response to the west’s viral, hostile post-9/11 candor while centering every scene on the tensions of often overlooked diminutive logistics: his inspiration from RESIDENT EVIL shined bright (a la, visit your dead parents for collectible backstory items, complete the button prompts to change the tire before the horde attacks, HINT: eat gas station biscuits to restore health). It’s a movie of big ideas that simultaneously traps you in crumbling England for 113 minutes. Boyle, of course, comes in clutch with the grimy digital video, the whole film blown out and grained down as though it was shot with the last functioning camera on Earth, yet still framed with the surrendering grace of being the last living person to cherish the blue skies. In horror and in light, there is everything I’d forgotten, and everything I’ve remembered. Compare any frame of 28 DAYS LATER to the humiliating “One Perfect Shot” moments in CIVIL WAR, wherein Alex Garland has rigged a photography competition with his own protagonists to see who can compose the tackiest frame. In this constant search for validation, it reveals the hollowness of “the image” and its reach, intellectually and aesthetically.

Rick Perlstein writes in NIXONLAND that a Gallup poll found that 58% of respondents blamed the four murdered students for getting murdered by National Guard troops at Kent State. An unnamed lawyer told an Akron paper, “Frankly, if I’d been faced with the same situation and had a submachine gun… there probably would have been 140 of them dead.” One of the letters published by the Kent newspaper read, “When is the long-suffering silent majority going to rise up?” I once heard about this thing called “Jim Crow laws,” have you guys heard about this? Pretty wild stuff. CIVIL WAR’s images lack impact because we’re a bunch of babies already shoulders deep in mongering: show Ben Shapiro Seattle’s University District and his legion of dunces will proclaim it war-torn Baghdad. Garland’s been beaten to the punch on the weaponization of photojournalism by bullshit artists far savvier than he will ever have the capacity to be. If we truly go to war with one another over Drag Queen Story Hour and neo-Nazis furious that they’ve been ratioed on Twitter for the 40,000th time, then I will eat my Adidas Superstars over a bed of mixed greens. And if we do, then whatever: civil war is small potatoes, we’re looking down the barrel of a global conflict centered on a genocidal Middle Eastern conquest by a belligerent occupier that the United States has nigh single-handedly funded. If the only distracting respite in all of this is media, and we’re expected to treat CIVIL WAR as a touchstone moment in the arts, then we’re really on death row eating a final meal of peanut shells and beer foam. The myth of unbiased reporting, and the great insult of objective art… Blegh.

Kevin Cookman
Kevin Cookman is a Film Editor for Merry-Go-Round Magazine. Deserted in a video store as an infant, Kevin was raised on Fulci, Tarantino, Kubrick, and Whoppers. Now he's a graduate of Chapman University who acts as editor for Merry-Go-Round on the side: what a success story.

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2 Comments

  1. Go to hell you xenophobic moron

  2. So your entire issue with the film is that it’s not the film you wanted. The movie isn’t about the war, the politics, or the reason. Its about Lee and her PTSD and how the experience weighs on her when a young Jesse steps in idolizing her and the job that have made her numb and detached. That’s WHY it doesn’t lean conservatively or liberally. You don’t know the motivations of either side or even what side the characters hope to come out on top. It’s intentionally ambiguous.

    Also you straight up lie, or at least make unsubstantiated claims about the film. We don’t know the president is evil simply because he had 3 terms. We have ZERO information about what he’s done outside of at some point using airstrikes on American soil, which would absolutely happen in a real world Civil War on our land. And you doubled down on the death of minorities like it’s a focus or even happens. The worst violence we see happens at the expense of two Asian men, a pile of mixed bodies of all types, and a firefight near the beginning where a white and black man die. The rest is all white or a mix of people fighting. So I’m not sure where you got that from.

    Regardless, you can’t fault a movie because it wasn’t the war movie YOU wanted. Just like I won’t assume all your reviews are just complaining about missing elements of movies that were never intended to be there in the first place.

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