Film Crit Hulk SMASH: Ridley Scott, Cinema’s Underrated Weirdo
No one thinks about Ridley Scott as a weirdo.
When we imagine the great gonzo filmmakers of our era we picture the brilliant idiosyncrasies of Herzog, the devilish impishness of Von Trier, or Terry Gilliam getting lost in La Mancha. We'd even be much quicker to give the gonzo designation to Ridley's late brother Tony, who practically made famous the whip-pan, slap-dash, high-energy style that defined his career. But we never think this way with Sir Ridley. Why, he has that debonair speaking voice and that incredibly cerebral way of talking about his process! And when we look at his cinema we see the evident work of a hyper-formalist, what with that carefully-controlled camera of his, those sterilized serene aesthetics, the immaculate, perfectly-controlled framing of actors carefully posturing through the soft backlighting. But the truth is, for all this seeming precision, Ridley Scott's not really a traditional formalist at all. Not with cinematic language, especially when it comes to his method of storytelling.
And this glaring juxtaposition is precisely what makes him so damn weird.
Alien might be my favorite film of all time.
It's a superlative that changes a lot, what with Do The Right Thing and a bunch of other films in the mix, but I always feel that way about Alien right after I see it because it's just one of those perfect movies. Sadly, one of the least credited reasons for that is the script. Working devoutly from Dan O'Bannon's draft, Walter Hill and David Giler's re-write is probably one of the best scripts of all time. Every beat, every gesture, every nuance of the final film is laid out right there on the page. And thankfully, Ridley brings it to life with an almost impossible level of atmospheric dread. Sure, we all talk about the famous production design from H.R. Giger, but whenever I think about Alien, I think about that haunting atmosphere. I think about that milky darkness, that steamy wet metal, and the way the jet black, inhuman alien always seems to hang just about the edges of the frame. It's all seared into my brain. Like the xenomorphs themselves: perfect. Just so, so perfect.
The fact that Ridley followed this up with Blade Runner, just seems all the more remarkable. But it is yet another great script working off Phillip K. Dick and another film awash in the glory of mood and impeccable production design. When I think of the film, I think of a series of crystallized images: the eye in the monitor, tears in the rain, and Harrison Ford eating noodles and the neon-soaked streets of a future that looks a surprising amount like Hong Kong 2017 (just no flying cars. Never the flying cars). But unlike the traditional horror functionality that's at the core of Alien, Ridley's Blade Runner has something else on its mind than pure functional pulp. It's dreamier. Stranger. A movie that sometimes feels lost in poeticism, but it's so evocative with it you don't really care. But it's probably not an accident that the film's core keeps getting lost in an endless stream of dreamier directors cuts, for it's a film built off impressions, moments, and visions. Still, it's worth remembering that the first reaction to the film was pretty mixed.
In retrospect it's hard to imagine a one, two punch this good right out the gate for any filmmaker (this is not a slight to the exceptional The Duelists). And it's not as if Ridley hasn't done great work since. His most popular films include the feminist-skewing fuck-you of Thelma & Louise, the lyrical and bloody splendor of the Roman epic Gladiator, and you can't deny his fun and affecting version of The Martian (most of my quibbles with which are the relative mishandling of a perfect book). You could look at all these films and happily throw him in the collection of our great filmmakers.
But the real story of both Ridley Scott's approach and artistic identity lies in the rest of his career. Movies that range from goodish to outright bad, but all with pretty interesting flaws. After Blade Runner, he wanted to create his own fairy tale in the style of the Brothers Grimm and so he unfurled Legend onto the screen. It's not only one of the first peaks into his loose, image-driven story instincts, but it really does characterize what we'll see a lot of in Ridley's work. For it's too strange and hypnotic a film to be ignored and yet it largely ignores narrative propulsion in favor of mood, texture, and iconography. This tendency actually fuels the other common Ridley trait, which is the constant re-cuts and studio battles (we'll get to more of this soon). But coming off his first real failure with this film, Ridley reigned it in and brought his unique stylization to the one-two punch of the conventional sexy thriller Someone To Watch Over Me and the gritty '80s actioner / Japanese noir Black Rain (which Michael Douglas is really excellent in). Then after the success of Thelma & Louise, Scott started setting his sights back on a more epic scale and finding a particular love affair with the ocean. From the already racially-dated 1492: Conquest of Paradise, to White Squall (which I have a soft spot for) to even G.I. Jane, it's like he kept seeming to find excuses to film on the sea. It's no accident there's a genuine kind of romanticism to each of these films that I find both lovely and somewhat a-characteristic with his other work (but we'll get to that, too).
But these films were also the start of a weird long run of projects where it's somewhat difficult to put your finger on what doesn't fully work about them. Like there's a weird disconnect to the oopsie-daisy attitude of Hannibal. There's the rather intentional story-less, geography-less chaos of Black Hawk Down, where every buzzed-head white actor blends into each other (a comment about the army that makes the story itself incredibly difficult. Compare it to the evident individualism in the characterization of Saving Private Ryan, which is after a deeper meaning beyond a surface observation of "army oneness." In other words, Ridley shoots his narrative in the foot to make a minor aesthetic point and this feels par for the course). Then there's the out of control flat-falling con comedy of Matchstick Men. The ever-stretching epic desire of Kingdom of Heaven, where like all Ridley, we can have a long and different talk about director's cut, but it's a film that gets lost in its own political systems. There's the way A Good Year falls mercilessly to its dour, joyless presentation. And how American Gangster has all the makings of a classic and yet falls to similar story-driven limitations. There's the way Body of Lies gets lost in its own obsession with systems and lacks Ridley's typical focus on mise en scene, a problem which reaches its apex in Robin Hood, a film where every scene seemingly just had six cameras thrown up and then it was "found" in the edit. I won't lie, it was at this point that I was most worried about his career.
But then Ridley's new austere brand of formalism came roaring back in Prometheus, a gorgeous and baffling film, along with The Counselor (while Exodus: Gods and Kings remains the only Ridley film I haven't seen). But this brings us to an important series of questions: why bring up nearly all 40 films the director has made? Why talk about the strange and divergent details? Because while there are a lot of things I like about all these movies, there's something oddly frustrating about them too, with seemingly no tangible connection in their flaws. So what the hell is really going on with Sir Ridley and how he approaches making movies?
How is this happening?
When it comes Ridley Scott, there isn't enough talk about two important factors in his artistic development:
-The first is how he spent 20 years being a kick-ass production designer en route to becoming one of the best commercial directors of all-time.
-And the second is that he didn't make his first film until he was 40.
Neither of those details inherently prove anything, they just sort of help inform what I see in the entirety of his work. To put it bluntly, I don't think he's a born storyteller, nor is it really his interest. Meaning I don't think he's obsessed with story or drama or wowing an audience with the ah-hah moment at a certain beat. I think he's a born designer. I think he's a painter. I think he gets lost in moods and ideas merely being presented in frame. I think we see this constantly in his austere sensibility. Whether it's the atmospheric steaminess of his early work, or the shutter fluctuations and hyper-colorization of his middle years, or the impeccable gloss and stilted designed staging of his later work. I think it all reflects a mindset that was learned from the commercial and design world. Please understand I don't mean that as any kind of insult; it's just what helps characterize the way he shapes his films.
And all the while, what actually comes out of his story sense is... eclectic? Bizarre? Id-driven? No one stops to think that he's just as weird and off-kilter as his brother Tony, but when I look at his work, especially in the late period, I see a strange brain with strange instincts. I see fixations on violence, sex, and how systems trap us, but always seemingly displayed at this weird distance. Which is most interesting when it comes from a guy who is constantly eschewing the "binding" of storytelling to get lost in some momentary effect. I see a guy who ignores "the rules" or, more problematically, whatever he said in a scene before or in a prior cut in favor of some new tangent. Which means I don't think Ridley even really has much of a sense for storytelling at all (similarly, we don't talk about this enough with Tim Burton, who has outright told us he has no idea what makes for a good script). I know that may seem like a stretch to say, especially as Ridley certainly knows enough by instinct to keep putting together movie-like movies and working with good writers, but it has to be evident in the fact that the vast majority of his films just don't quite ever get "there" in terms of overall function (especially with something like the constantly confused Prometheus). This all means Ridley knows enough to give a baseline, but he isn't interested enough in keeping it all cohesive and pointed, which only happens to be the most important thing about directing.
I mean that. There's always an art to staging and functionalism within a moment, but it's always the way story points build on singular moments, the way sequences add together into a complete story, the way performances fit into a larger tone, the way themes build into overall messaging. In short, the choices made as a filmmaker are the ones that make everything feel interconnected and pointed to a larger purpose. It's literally the director's job. You could have a dozen different film departments making something interesting and independent of each other, but it's how they fit together to create an overall meaning and effect that matters. And all of these critical choices depend on a cohesion, choices aligned to a grander purpose. To that, Tarkovsky brilliantly called filmmaking "sculpting in time," the allusion to a form of storytelling that is not just shape, but all about the construction of moments. And the alternative to that is evident...
I don't think Ridley has ever really cared about time.
"Why doesn't it work?"
That was the lingering questions after The Counselor - a crime epic with an A-List cast of Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, and Penelope Cruz, directed by Ridley Scott and written by none other than Cormac McCarthy - landed on movie screens with a surprising thud. The answer to that question is actually deceptively simple: as a "movie", The Counselor is not written to be thrilling action film. Instead, Cormac McCarthy's cautionary fable is a monologue-riddled, play-like meditation on the trappings of sex, greed and death. Which, of course, should not be a problem in and of itself. It sounds awesome even, for there are many ways to bring such a story to life in a compelling way that is full of cinematic verve. But in an effort to do just that, Ridley's wild and vibrant directing choices end up falling surprisingly flat. Which brings us square into the conversation about how Scott makes directorial choices and the importance of understanding the nebulous "larger purpose." Because perhaps no film argues for the coherence of overall directing choices quite like The Counselor.
In order to establish a baseline, let's compare the film to a very similar movie which also happens written by McCarthy: No Country For Old Men. Now, it's never fair to compare anything to a movie as perfect as that one, but the differences of approach highlight some keys to the sense function. At first glance, the film is a classic "bag full of money" movie that spirals out into a tight thriller. What I want to stress is how much of this movie's success comes from the Coen's airtight understanding of story, comedic timing, and functional cinematic language. On that last point, you'll note that their cinematic language was often pointed, yet heightened to a sometimes even comedic effect of something like Miller's Crossing, but the second they made something fully grounded like No Country, they stripped away the exaggeration and focused on perfect fundamentals of cinematic language. So it's no accident they happened to construct one of the greatest action sequences of all time (the motel scene into the chase). They maximize every moment of tension and seem to hold it for the perfect amount of time. The editing moves with perfect sense of rhythm, always just one step ahead of the audience, shocking us or luring us into false safety in equal measure. It's stunning.
But even better, these fundamentals fan out to an overall story that never feels lost in its dalliances. When it stops to be genuinely funny (hi, Garret Dillahunt) it feels right in step with the entire movie. It even knows how to take a goofy-ass haircut and just make it part of how the character of Anton Chigurh is terrifying. It knows how to turn a scene from light to dark, or dark to light. It knows how to undercut expectations or double down at moment's notice. It's in total control. And it's even true all the way through the film's unconventional dissolution of plotting and final utterance of Ed Tom Bell's two dreams, which is done with complete confidence and clarity. This allows the film to not only make a brilliant criticism of the crime genre, but a beautiful, haunting statement about the nature of loss and the way time slips to our horrific human pursuits. Beyond just the idea, I still feel those last quiet moments with Ed Tom Bell to this day. No Country is simply a tour de force of directing, all because choices are aligned to purpose. Specifically, the most dramatic and thematically resonant ones.
But from the start of The Counselor (and yes, I watched the director's cut), I'm mostly confused as to... well... everything. If there's one word I can use to sum up the choices, it's "disconnect." For we start with a long-winded and blunt sexual discussion between two people in bed as the sheet romantically floats above them, all executed in these long still shots. It seems to go on forever. I found myself immediately wondering, why are we were still in this? What are we getting out of this going on and on? And as soon as the film starts going through its set-up with Fassbender getting into the deal, complete with the lax staging, the tension-less air, the way it tries to convey these "normal-talking" yet goofy characters (who are still shot like the glossy movie stars that they are), it just feels so damn strange. Most strange is definitely the "locker room" banter between Fassbender and Bardem, which can't seem to come off as convincing or un-stilted for even a second. It all just feels tone deaf and garish, especially for two actors I know can pull moments like this off. It's out of sync with what's on screen. Just like how Bardem's goofy hair feels completely out of sync with the movie itself. Unlike No Country, it's like the film is constantly pointing and saying "isn't it goofy!?" And on its own, it's an aesthetic choice that you feel Tony could turn right into with his hyperkinetic sense of style (which was oft reckless, but cohesive), but with Ridley? With this particular story? With the austere framing and deliberate unfolding and pacing? With the intention of dread? It's just in a different movie. I know it may seem like a small thing, but it is symbolic of a movie out of sync with itself. A gonzo movie that doesn't know how to let go and really be gonzo.
Perhaps the deeper problem is that I can always see the logic of the aesthetic choices being made in and of themselves. I see Ridley desperately trying to ingrain the film with life, humor, and sexuality, but it never feels organic to anything in terms of his presentation. More importantly, I can never get a sense of how they are meant to fit together, especially on the dramatic level. I can never seem to align the feeling that is created in the tone of the film and reconcile it with the words that are being uttered onscreen, especially in a scene like Cameron Diaz's confession with the priest. Is this supposed to play funny? Tense? Revealing? It's all of those, yet none of those, awash in a lack of conviction... Why is this so problematic? Can't you just be okay with that confused feeling? Well, sure, there's nothing "wrong" with it in the sense that you can't like the glorious mess of it all, but there is absolutely something wrong if you're trying build something compelling that the majority of people will understand and be engrossed by. For that, which is the real purpose for the movie, you need the deepest level of coherence on all fronts. (Tangent: explaining how Kubrick actually pulls off multi-tones would take its own giant essay).
Admittedly, it's not hard to intellectually understand what The Counselor is after, especially when you step back and simply state it: it's essentially a sequence of 12 monologues that are meditations on sex, death and the human traps of greed that we get ourselves into. It is not trying to come at you with twists and turns in this regard, but be straightforward and play-like in a lot of ways. Still, the film itself is meant to be "the bolito," the slow, unstoppable, and ever-closing decapitator. And, like most McCarthy work, it's filled with brilliant lines and insights. I still regularly quote it for something that I've always believed about characterization in movies and that's Brad Pitt saying, "you don't know someone until you know what they want." And then there is the heartbreaking performance from the great Ruben Blades who tells us, "grief transcends value. A man would give entire nations to get grief off his heart. And yet, you cannot buy anything with grief. Because grief is worthless." Ridley is a smart enough guy to capture and express these feelings so poetically. He even pulls it off in the biggest moments. And at the film's most visceral best, it still captures the icky, grimy, and unnerving violence that Ridley's so good at, as well.
But on its core level, The Counselor is a film that, like No Country, desperately needs the more traditional constructions to hold up its more lofty aims. Ed Tom Bell's dreams aren't as effective without the tension of the movie that comes before. In this film, the bolito needs to be ratcheting up the tension of a closing and dramatic noose. But Ridley seems to have no interest, nor any real idea how to do it. He knows how to express the anguish at the center of it, but it's still from the view of someone detached from it. There's almost a wry laughing smirk and physical comedy as Brad Pitt falls victim to the bolito itself. Just as there's no indication Ridley knows how to make the sexual discussion feel anything but puerile. Just as there seems to be no idea how to land Malkina's final moment, nor how to tease out her untrustworthiness with a sense of drama. Instead, Ridley's way more interested in the weird dalliance of her masturbating against the car without really communicating the deeper thing behind it.
These things matter deeply to the success of The Counselor. After all, the balance of meditation and function in cinema is a high-wire act, but Ridley will just let it run on and on and on and on until the film itself becomes an airless meditation itself. He's conflating the nature of the dialogue with what the tone of the film itself should be, and it results in this weird McCarthy film where the meditations are delivered not by human characters we empathize with, but weird Shakespearean Aliens. Which might be fascinating on some levels, but it's absolutely why most people shrugged it off and it gets 35% on something like Rotten Tomatoes (which for the millionth time, is not an aggregator of quality but accessibility). So sure, I can detach myself from the film to find the intended theme and certain moments to be profound, but I can also say confidently that "as a film it does not work."
All of this is much more evident in something like Prometheus.
We've all talked about the film ad nauseam at this point, with the way it steadily builds an interesting new atmospheric world before it promptly falls apart in a series of crashing waves, what with characters changing motivation and personality seemingly at will. But the tragedy of the film lies mostly in the way it gets lost in its own questions much the same way the characters do. Yes, we know it's a film about the unknowable nature of creation and the frustrations that come from it, but, like The Counselor, the film falls victim to its own mode of expression. By the end, it's crawling after it's own dalliances, wreaking havoc on itself just as it wreaks havoc on others, almost pathetically slinking off into the cosmos in search of "answers" that it doesn't really know how to form within the story itself. Like most of Ridley's work, it knows how to express an idea, but it doesn't really know how to dramatize it.
And there it is. Across his entire body of work, Ridley's never really been good at creating a unifying dramatic experience. While he's definitely at his best when working from a tight as hell script that lays it on the page, the work consistently falls apart on the dramatic catharsis level. All the re-cuts you see of his movies? The reason this keeps happening is because there's no real driving story function at the core of the films. There's nothing to put together because nothing's really connected and interlocking. He's never been after function, so they're basically re-cutable ad infinitum, resulting in endless permutations of a sequence of impressions, not story-driven beats. So, yeah, despite all the austere hub bub on the surface of his films, you can see that he's absolutely not sculpting in time, but watercoloring in timelessness.
Which is certainly not to say it's without artistic merit. Far from it. And Ridley's still so good at atmospheric manipulations of dread that it can find it's way into practically anything. Not to mention his uncanny eye for creating unnerving violence. That's not cathartic violence, mind you, but the kind of visualization that repulses more than it elicits titillation. It doesn't matter if it's an Alien bursting through a chest or the dark decapitations of the Mexican cartel. It's meant to make you feel shook. And we can argue all about the core story function of Prometheus, but there's no doubting that the "abortion" scene is one of the most terrifying, claustrophobic, fist-gnawing scenes in recent memory. But it is in the exact characterization of these scenes that most intrigues me. Because I don't think there's any kind of deep fetishism to it, more of sterile disconnect and morbid fascination with the humans "within the box" in front of him. It's like he likes to watch them writhe. And this manipulation mixes with moments from a career that seems to have the weirdest track record of who deserves empathy and why, often before crushing those people within larger systems.
At the center of this and trying to figure out all the driving force of his films is a series of much more simple questions: Who is Ridley Scott? What does he want? I don't think we've ever really asked because we've been too busy judging the book by the austere cover. Too busy calling him a formalist. Too busy identifying him as the guy who made a perfect film like Alien. And so, I've spent the last 30 years being weirdly frustrated with his stories. I always wanted to understand what drove him to make these choices that elicit such frustration. What kind of person makes films like this? What does he actually believe in? How does he see the world? People? Human beings? Again, who is Ridley Scott?
And when I watched Alien: Covenant it all finally clicked.
To be specific, I was watching David.
If there's anything to be gained from these Alien prequel films, it's an appreciation for Michael Fassbender's lovely little android weirdo. I also can't think about the character without thinking of Evan Saathoff's perfect description of him that "he's like a scientifically curious Dennis the Menace." And in Alien: Covenant the character becomes the entire focal point of the movie. He's the driving force of the chaos unleashed and also the character whose psyche is given the most attention, understanding, and weirdly enough, empathy. He's this devilish, impish creator who lashes out at man and his creators. And when it gets to the scene where Billy Crudup goes in for the face-hugger, we get the immediate sense that Ridley isn't interested in the obligatory re-tread of his famous jump-scare. No, Ridley is so much more interested in the moment right after it. The one where the Xenomorph emerges and David hilariously mimics his "child's" birth, with the goofy outstretched arms of the Xenomorph all akimbo. It's so lovingly and tenderly displayed, there's even a bit of hymnal music that comes into our ears. It's a moment so full of weird empathy for this reckless creator and not a bit of empathy for the human carcass below him. From this moment, it's clear just how much this film loves David and all the havoc he wreaks in the name of creation... And that's when it all hit me like a ton of bricks.
Ridley Scott IS David.
And he has been this entire time. When I look at those 40 films I'm hard pressed to think of a director more disconnected and yet tickled by the humans who populate them. Films that watch its subjects squirm in anguish and yet rebel against god, nature, and the traps of determinism. And I can't help but think of how much Ridley must feel like David creating all alone in his cave palace. Making endless permutations on alien monstrosities, it's almost as if they were a big production design meeting going over new concepts for the film. I look at a career spent on characters raging against fates and systems, only to just end up showing humans wreaking havoc against an unknowable god. I think of David's creations themselves: careless, reckless, an act of reproduction, also fascinatingly beautifully. David isn't sculpting in time, he's smashing together organic play-doh and seeing what delights happen. There's no character in his entire ouevre Scott seems to love more. And I think this depiction tells us how Ridley Scott seems to create out of the same sense of frustration. Creation as violence and murder. Creation as birth. And as the creator, he watches safely from behind the glass.
It's just so easy to imagine Ridley overseeing it all with that dry, wry, ever so slight smile of his. I see it pop up every time he does an interview, too. And while I will probably never have faith in his story chops or see some innate ability to always make a "great" story, I will always watch his work because of that dreamy, obsessive, and violent sense of creation. I first harped on Prometheus because it seemed equally obsessed with answering an unanswerable question, failing to realize the simplest truth that knows that God, whether you believe or not, is unknowable. And in Alien: Covenant we finally get the believer's reaction to that answer. It's an angry screed of vengeance. You can practically see Ridley tearing apart the critics of Prometheus and upholding this as his oedipal, vibrant, and fascinating act of creation. And you can see this fixation on and love for his own weird creations in turn. So while it didn't work as the pulpy, violent throwback Alien film that many wanted, I love Alien: Covenant because it's the film that finally got me to understand Ridley Scott as a human being, artist, and creative voice. He is absolutely our own scientifically curious Dennis the Menace. And once you get beyond the austere artifice and assumptions of his supposed-formalism, you can see it simply:
Ridley Scott is one of cinema's great underrated weirdos.
And realizing that just makes me love him even more.