Perhaps inevitably, the opening minutes of Los Sures are its strongest. It begins with a dizzying, sharply edited montage covering practically the whole breadth of the Puerto Rican South Williamsburg neighborhood, accompanied by narration from several unidentified people. It certainly isn’t abstract, but there is an irresistible vigor to the sequence—it and the short interludes that are sprinkled throughout the film are by far the most interesting aspects. In comparison, the bulk of the documentary is taken up by comparatively uninteresting “standard” personal testimonies, following a handful of people intending to represent the community. However, the only aspect that truly distinguishes them is their social class, as their personalities and struggle to survive all take up a similar tenor. Even more unfortunately, the film becomes more and more like a political screed in its interview of the featured social worker in the final section. But throughout, the verve and intimacy of the film remains, and though Los Sures could have gone much, much further in its representation of this formerly vibrant community, it is valuable nonetheless.
If there is one feeling that Fish Tank cannot be accused of lacking, it is immediacy. From the opening, Andrea Arnold makes it clear that the film will focus entirely on the volatile, forceful character of Mia (Katie Jarvis), following her relentlessly as she argues on the phone, head-butts another girl, and tries to free a horse in rapid succession. Throughout, Robbie Ryan’s camera follows her, the consistent handheld sometimes breaks into incomprehensibility as it runs to keep up with her youthful vigor. The effect, especially in the opening, is almost punishing—the film operates with zero degree of remove, rejecting any sense of commentary towards its characters in favor of representing them as they are, sometimes in an admittedly worrying way. Mia’s mother and especially her sister are rather ghastly characters, even more volatile without much to offset their excessive vulgarity.
For all of the excessive volatility of Mia’s character, Fish Tank works best when it focuses on her and, a bit later in the film, Conor (Michael Fassbender). Much of this is due to Jarvis’s performance, which somehow exceeds Arnold’s fervor in portraying the realism of her character’s situation. Mia is only 15 years older, but Jarvis seemingly plays her as someone of wildly varying ages depending on her situation: sometimes cocky, sometimes aggressive, sometimes withdrawn, but always visibly energetic. Before Conor arrives, she carries the movie, especially in the scenes where she practices her dancing. It is her passion, and if she is not especially good, she puts her heart into it, as she does with most of her interactions.
This vigor catches the attention of Conor, and Fish Tank almost seems to become a different film after his introduction. The other characters are still there, and there is still plenty of immediacy to go around, but Fassbender introduces a much-needed injection of easygoingness (the continual use of Bobby Womack’s cover of “California Dreamin'” certainly helps), and even the camera seems to stabilize, as if he serves as an anchor to Mia. The situations become much more stable, and the movie slowly builds to the inevitable between Mia and Conor, shot mostly in a relatively long shot and with true tenderness.
Unfortunately, the film almost completely loses itself completely afterwards, elongating the day before Mia’s dancing audition into a rather enervating half-hour where Mia’s actions become even less comprehensible and desparate. Much of the sequence falls back into the rut of just following Mia as she runs, and even the resolution feels inert; nothing has changed for Mia, and it feels like a means to an end. The film does regain its footing after that, offering resolutions in sharp succession, especially a rather well-considered one with Conor.
The very ending of the film comes somewhat out of the blue, but it feels almost like a sort of redemption or a fresh start for Mia. Her situation is as chaotic as ever, but there is a clear sense of some sort of change; whether it be for good or ill is undetermined. Fish Tank is unfailing in its depiction of a certain mindset, but despite considerable detriments resulting from this approach during the movie, it certainly lingers in the mind.
Jodie Mack’s short operates almost entirely in a state of playfulness. From the opening live action footage, cut as rhythmically as the animation, to the glorious prismatic abstractions that sparkle throughout the second half, it is unmistakably joyous, delighting in the trinkets that at first seem trivial, then ominous (in startling close-ups against a black back-drop), then creators of light as they gradually recede. It is distinctly programmatic, but never predictable (especially in the middle section that mixes the colored flares with hazy shots of a lake), and throughout the bells tinkle insistently.
The religious aspects of The Night of the Hunter are apparent from the very premise—it is, after all, a film about a deranged, amoral so-called preacher. But what struck me most on this rewatch, especially with a slightly incredulous audience, was the purity of the movie, especially in its depiction of religion, faith, and innocence. Laughton and Agee made no attempts to conceal the hypocrisy of the community, but that in and of itself is a faithful gesture, and at least for me, it worked wonders.
From the very beginning, The Night of the Hunter blatantly positions itself as a fairy tale; Lillian Gish appears in space a la the beginning of Dune, and this is matched by the ending, where she talks directly to the camera. But like her nightly teachings, and quite unlike Mitchum’s fiery sermon, the film never feels preachy, treating its events with the utmost sincerity.