Review – The Butler

Forrest Gump may have been referring to life and boxes of chocolates when he remarked that “you never know what you’re gonna get”, but he could just have easily been talking about the films of Lee Daniels.

In trying to tick too many boxes and pull in too may directions The Butler only serves to weaken its message

In trying to tick too many boxes and pull in too may directions The Butler only serves to weaken its message

Following the little-seen crime thriller Shadowboxer (in which Helen Mirren stars as a contract killer – RED doesn’t seem so odd now), Daniels broke out with the rough and tough Precious before going completely off the reservation with 2012’s tawdry slice of American gothic The Paperboy.

The wild excesses and craziness of The Paperboy have been reigned in and sanitised with his latest offering, The Butler, loosely based on the true story of long-serving White House butler Eugene Allen.

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) within his second home - the White House - in The Butler

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) within his second home – the White House – in The Butler

The Forrest Gump analogy works on another level also, as The Butler is reminiscent of that film’s decade-spanning central character who finds himself brushing shoulders with America’s most powerful and influential figures. However, whilst Forrest’s encounters were largely down to fortuitous timing and dumb luck, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) becomes part of the fabric of the White House over the course of seven presidencies.

The film charts Cecil’s life from a brutal upbringing on a Georgia cotton farm in the 1920s, in which his father is murdered and his mother raped by the plantation’s sociopathic owner, through to his training as a servant which leads to him being employed as a butler at the White House in 1957 under Dwight D Eisenhower. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue becomes a second home for Cecil, much to the chagrin of his devoted, but frustrated wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey). Meanwhile, Cecil’s eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes a committed civil rights campaigner, while his other son Charlie (Elijah Kelley) chooses to fight in Vietnam.

Cecil's mother Hattie (Mariah Carey) toils away in the cotton fields in The Butler

Cecil’s mother Hattie (Mariah Carey) toils away in the cotton fields in The Butler

The Butler feels like a movie pulling in several different directions, with Daniels never quite sure which way to go. One minute it’s a sweeping historical epic, the next a hard-hitting depiction of the civil rights movement, while a minute later it’s a tear-jerking relationship drama between father and son.

Its opening scenes are a difficult watch and suggest a possible explanation as to why Cecil is so averse to speaking out or picking a fight as an adult. The film is at its strongest when dealing directly with the civil rights movement, which it does in an angry and harrowing way by portraying the shameful physical and verbal abuse meted out to those brave enough to smash through the petty racism that still existed in much of the South.

Cecil's volatile eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) in The Butler

Cecil’s volatile eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) in The Butler

Oyelowo does an excellent job as Louis, who risks his life and being ostracised from his father to fight for a more enlightened America, but only through peaceful means. His journey is arguably the most compelling in the film and it’s to Oyelowo’s credit that he doesn’t give in to Oscar-grabbing temptation.

Winfrey is also wonderful as Gloria, a complex character who dearly loves her husband but makes mistakes of judgement that etch themselves on her face. It’s performances like these that make you wish she’d spend less time interviewing people and more in front of the camera for different reasons.

Cecil (Forest Whitaker) and fellow White House butlers James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz) and Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr) in The Butler

Cecil (Forest Whitaker) and fellow White House butlers James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz) and Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr) in The Butler

As Gary Oldman so memorably proved in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the hardest performances to pull off are the ones that are dialled down almost to zero and Whitaker is similarly restrained as the ghost-like Cecil. Taught early on to silently blend into the background in order to become a successful butler, Cecil goes about his everyday business with the utmost professionalism while presidents come and go and the world moves on around him.

Despite being the headquarters of a world superpower, Daniels shows that very little actually changes within the White House, be it the Downton Abbey-esque stately formality or the attitudes among some senior White House staff towards the black servants.

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) in The Butler

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) in The Butler

A gamut of stars portray the various presidents, with the most notable being John Cusack’s clammy and paranoid turn as Nixon (including a slightly comical prosthetic nose) and Alan Rickman’s uncanny take on Ronald Regan.

Each president appears only briefly on camera, which lends weight to the argument that The Butler would probably have worked better as a mini-series. With so much to squeeze in, the film inevitably feels rushed and softens its impact as a result.

Daniels should be congratulated for bringing a serious film to the big screen  about the long and arduous journey African-Americans took before a black president finally occupied the White House, but in trying to tick too many boxes and pull in too may directions The Butler only serves to weaken its message.

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Review – Prisoners

The mark of Scandinavian crime drama seeps into every gloomy frame of this brutal and nihilistic English language debut from director Denis Villeneuve.

Prisoners may retreat into traditional thriller territory, especially in its final act, but it offers no easy answers and paints a very troubling picture of God-fearing American suburbia

Prisoners may retreat into traditional thriller territory, especially in its final act, but it offers no easy answers and paints a very troubling picture of God-fearing American suburbia

Prisoners opens with carpenter Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) uttering the Lord’s Prayer before his son (Dylan Minnette) shoots his first deer. It’s a symbolic moment – a violent act performed in God’s name, one in which forgiveness is spoken of but ultimately ignored.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) demands action from Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to find his daugher in Prisoners

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) demands action from Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to find his daugher in Prisoners

Keller is a deeply religious man whose New Testament nature gives way to Old Testament retribution when his young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) goes missing along with the daughter of his good friend Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) during a Thanksgiving dinner. Panic and grief give way to murderous vengeance for Keller when the police, led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), are forced to release their chief suspect, the mentally challenged Alex (Paul Dano).

Prime suspect Alex (Paul Dano) is interrogated by Detecive Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Prisoners

Prime suspect Alex (Paul Dano) is interrogated by Detecive Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Prisoners

Loki implores Keller and his wife Grace, who’s become virtually catatonic through grief, to let him do his job, which involves methodically following whatever leads the case throws up. But blinded by rage and convinced that Alex knows where the girls are being held, an obsessive Keller takes it upon himself to act as judge, jury and, if necessary, executioner to find the ‘truth’, sucking Franklin and his wife Nancy (Viola Davis) into his increasingly disturbing descent.

Keller Dover takes the law into his own hands in Prisoners

Keller Dover takes the law into his own hands in Prisoners

Cinematographer par excellence Roger Deakins infuses Prisoners with an almost suffocating dread – woods haven’t looked this spine-tingling since The Blair Witch Project. Not only does the film coldly nod in the direction of Scandi-drama, it also owes a lot to the slate-grey creepiness of David Fincher (in particular Seven and Zodiac), whose most recent film is, of course, his remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Another Scandi-connection can be found in the atmospheric soundtrack provided by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

As well as the obvious religious overtones, it’s also easy to find a 9/11 allegory in Prisoners – a wounded America (religious everyman Keller) goes in search of revenge against its quarry (Alex) and is prepared to sacrifice its moral superiority to quench its thirst for vengeance.

Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) are dragged into Keller Dover's quest for vengeance in Prisoners

Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) are dragged into Keller Dover’s quest for vengeance in Prisoners

Aaron Guzikowski’s script asks some troubling questions, most notably, to what lengths would you as a parent go when your worst nightmares are realised. Given the right material, Jackman can really act and shows he’s far more than the Wolverine with a raw and powerful performance as Keller. Jackman’s natural physicality lends a ticking time bomb nature to his character, someone who you believe will do anything to get his daughter back.

Aunt Holly (Melissa Leo) protects Alex (Paul Dano) in Prisoners

Aunt Holly (Melissa Leo) protects Alex (Paul Dano) in Prisoners

Gyllenhaal, who played a political cartoonist dragged into tracking down a serial killer in Zodiac, gives Loki (another Scandinavian connection) a stoical implacability that nicely mirrors Keller’s bull-in-a-china-shop aggressiveness. His pronounced blinking suggests an appalled bewilderment at what his character is investigating and contributes to what is the latest in a line of fine performances from Gyllenhaal.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) on the case in Prisoners

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) on the case in Prisoners

The heavyweight supporting cast are uniformly excellent. Dano, normally a little too over-the-top, dials it right down as the tragic Alex; Howard and Davis are entirely believable as a couple who suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the moral line and don’t know what to do; while Melissa Leo is reliably great as Alex’s impassive Aunt Holly.

It’s not until you watch the film that you realise just how rare a commodity it is in American studio cinema these days. Prisoners may retreat into traditional thriller territory, especially in its final act, but it offers no easy answers and paints a very troubling picture of God-fearing American suburbia.