Rarely do I attend a film that at its conclusion, I have a deeply visceral reaction to, either positive or negative. An example of the former is In America, which simply ripped me to shreds on a first viewing. An example of the latter is Frequency, which has a final scene that made me want to throw something at the screen. Several years on, I continue to admire In America for its charms though the emotional reaction has subsided on subsequent viewings. I also continue to dislike Frequency, and while I have no plans to rewatch it, I suspect my strong feelings of revulsion would be tempered somewhat with a second viewing, though I cannot imagine ever actually enjoying the film. All of this should be read as a caveat of sorts to my thoughts on Children of Men. In other words, while my reaction to the film was quite strong, I expect that the negative emotions will fade over time, leaving behind a general dissatisfaction with the film. My interest here then lies in exploring why it is I reacted so strongly against Cuarón’s film (a film which has received nearly universal critical acclaim). Suffice it to say that when I walked out of the movie, I found my frustration growing to a point I rarely experience. What is it that’s driving this reaction?
Briefly, CoM takes place in and around London in the year 2027. While the world has changed pretty much for the worse across the board, the most significant change is that people all over the world are infertile for some unknown reason, a fact which apparently leads to greater unrest, accumulation of filth, and a general malaise across the world’s population. Our entrance into this world is through Theo (Clive Owen), a middle-aged, former activist who ends up doing the bidding of an extremist radical group by escorting a mysteriously pregnant woman to a safe house off the coast of England.
Considering CoM in light of content and form leads to a productive distinction for me to begin thinking about my response to the film. Following this line of thought, it seems I am left with one of two options to find a source for my harsh negative reaction: Either my read on the story or plot (content) yields something worthy of frustration, and/or something about the technical elements or presentation of that content (form) is trumping any charms the story might contain.
In terms of content, it seems that a number of positive responses come from the hope that is offered by the birth of a child in the midst of a dark world. While I can appreciate and resonate with this idea (which btw, is available by simply knowing the premise of the film), I am struggling to see how CoM gives us any broader context to which that hope can be connected. We might feel good about Kee and the birth of her baby, but what effect does that have on anyone else? The soldiers can’t even seem to stop fighting long enough to get her out of harm’s way. We also have no reason to believe such a thing will be duplicated. So while I can see the presence of hope there in a more surface way, when buttressed by the death and darkness and destruction in the world, the film as a whole doesn’t appear to offer a hope with much substance or connection to its world. It really doesn’t appear to be any kind of reality-altering hope that changes everything. That, to me, is the significant failure of the story – an interesting premise that really isn’t developed to any significant degree or connected to the world in which it is placed.
With a straightforward story that doesn’t offer much in the way of development, I turn to formal issues in hopes of some answer that will account for my reaction against this film. Eminent critics like Manohla Dargis in the New York Times and Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader have been explicit in their praise for the film precisely for its formal expertise. Yet as I continue to reflect on the experience, it seems to me that while technically impressive, those same formal elements offer a particularly dark and destructive picture of humanity, something that becomes clear to me in thinking about one of those hyped, centerpiece sequences in the film. After the first rather pedestrian twenty or thirty minutes, there is a shooting in which we watch someone literally bleed to death. The violence and force with which the actual shooting was portrayed is impressive in its shocking brutality. Yet after being in constant motion during this technically astute sequence, the director feels the need to slow down and settle the camera’s gaze on this individual taking their final breath, as the blood pours from the wound.
Within five minutes of this scene, there are two more shootings, again, shocking in their swift brutality. And again, the director feels the need, having already cut away to show the escaping perpetrators, to cut back to the dead/dying men on the ground, blood pouring into the street where they lay. After an extended sequence that appears to offer no cuts (apparently there actually were cuts, but digitally manipulated to appear otherwise), it is interesting as a point of emphasis to see that one of the first cuts Cuarón makes is in an effort to take us back to those dying men, bleeding on the street. One such shooting was more than enough for me to get the point of the horrors of the world they’re in, particularly since that first character was one we’d started to know and appreciate. Yet two more on top of it, shot in a very similar way, within moments of the first, and in both cases feeling the need to linger seems more than is necessary. It felt like Cuarón was piling on at that point.
It is at this point that the film starts to take on primarily the mantle of endurance test rather than meaningful exploration of relevant issues. Our view is constantly pointed toward those destructive, dirty, or even insane forces in the world. It is that destruction and dirt which is foregrounded throughout, rather than the development of the central theme. Thus, the violence occurs, but what meaning does it offer? Do the repeated acts, the lingering on dead/dying bodies contribute in a meaningful way to the development of the film’s themes? Are those acts contextualized within the broader fabric of the film? The first shooting I understand (even if I don’t like the way it was shot). The others after it all seem superfluous.
As a point of comparison, I offer Haneke’s Time of the Wolf (or even Caché), which, while I don’t love either film, I admire quite a bit. Like CoM, they also contain single, brief, brutal, and shocking acts of violence, but those moments of brutality don’t trouble me the same way they do in CoM. I am forced to ask myself why that is. Certainly Haneke’s violence is upsetting, but Cuarón seems to stretch far beyond that. Maybe it is the way the camera lingers on death and suffering in CoM, whereas Haneke’s films trust that the audience will continue to be troubled simply by the shocking brutality of the initial act itself. Maybe it’s because Haneke refuses to pile on those images, preferring a “less is more” approach. Maybe it’s because Haneke offers us a more complex vision of reality, one that better holds the tension between guilt and innocence, peace and suffering, all in view of such terrifying violence. CoM gives us an interesting premise of hope in a dark world, but I’m struggling to see where that premise is developed, and am even questioning if it delivers on that simple statement.
I’m still exploring the reasons for my negative reaction to this film. It sounds like the far majority of people had really positive and powerful reactions to it. That’s fine. But at this point, to bring us back to the content and form distinction, I’m left with a story that doesn’t offer much development of its initial premise, and a way of presenting that story which bludgeons the viewer with violent acts against mostly nameless, faceless people we neither know nor care about. This repetition of violent death and destruction (and especially the way those acts are repeated and emphasized visually) remains at such a distance from the central, undeveloped premise, that any mitigation the “hope in a dark world” might offer is muted to the point of virtual irrelevance.