Catching Up With: The Devil’s Backbone – 2001

War has a profound affect on people’s emotions and thought processes, as the parameters of what we are willing to believe in are stretched in times of great turmoil and upheaval. Renowned Mexican writer/director Guillermo Del Toro has a keen interest in the supernatural, especially when these old horror tropes brush up against the real horrors of war. He examined this contrast brilliantly in “Pan’s Labyrinth” (one of the best films of the 21st century, imho), but he first the literal and figurative demons of war and suffering in 2001’s “The Devil’s Backbone,” a mournful ghost story about, among other things, how other tragedies don’t stop occurring even in times of war.

The conflict being the Spanish Civil War, when Spain was nearly split in half between the fascist Nationalists and the Republicans. As a result, many children whose parents were fighting or were already killed in the effort were sent to orphanages, among them being Carlos (Fernando Tielve), who gets sent to one after the death of his father. But this orphanage, which is located in the Spanish desert, far from civilization but not from the war, has secrets of its own. The headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes), already burdened by an artificial leg also has a safe filled with gold belonging to the defeated Republicans, which is of great interest to the nefarious handyman Jacinto (a chilling Eduardo Noriega). There is also the upstanding and decent Dr. Cesares (Frederico Luppi, who also appeared in Del Toro’s “Cronos”), who still has a strange fascination with deformed fetuses, particularly those born with the “devil’s backbone,” a horrific deformation that results in children being born with their spinal cords on the outside. Along with the unexploded warhead in the courtyard and the constant bullying by Jaime (Íñigo Garcés), Carlos is also haunted by the ghost of Jaime’s dead brother Santi (Junio Valverde) whose death may be more mysterious than anyone realizes. The adults who run the school have enough secrets and tragedy in their lives to fill the home’s spacious halls.

Del Toro’s films have a unique energy to them; he likes tossing different genres into the air with old-fashioned horror and mystery tropes, and “Devil’s Backbone” is all the more richer and substantive as a result. It’s a ghost story, a coming-of-age adventure, a murder mystery and a bleak document of war-time life in the 1940’s, and as a result this movie is quite spirited, despite the apparent bleakness of its story. That’s thanks, in part, to the elegant, precise camerawork, the gorgeous cinematography by Guillermo Navarro, the diverse score by Javier Navarrete, and the balanced script by Del Toro, Antonio Trashhorras and David Muñoz.

That balance is crucial because the film is built on all the different responses to war and its root; human cruelty, among the living and the dead. Literally manifesting itself as the defused missile in their midst and the ghosts that haunt the place, it is inescapable. Cesares (given warmth and strength by Luppi in a great performance) justifies everything with science in logic, such as using the rum he keeps his dead fetuses as an elixir and monetary source. Carmen has already lost someone, and she deals with her guilt,  emotional and physical pain by running to the arms of Jacinto, who’s soul is consumed by greed and violence. Carlos (Tielve is also excellent) is pursued by the restless spirit of Santi, but everyone in this movie is haunted by something.

As we learn more about Santi’s death and the motivations of all these characters as enemies much closer to home than any army close in, “The Devil’s Backbone” grows in power. While it does not have the shattering emotional gut-punch that “Labyrinth” did, this film is a powerful statement on wartime conflict in its own way. While the world burns, other evils don’t stop for anything. The other ghosts are just as restless. Del Toro is a master at crafting suspense and letting his visual imagination run wild, but he’s a consummate storyteller first and foremost. This is a grim fable, but it’s never dour; it just doesn’t forget that there are just as many trouble souls among the living.

Grade: A-


Personal Pantheon: Magnolia – 1999

“And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite your whole territory with frogs.” -Exodus 8:2

The book says, “We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”

Ricky Jay tells us of three stories about death; a suicide attempt, an freak occurrence involving a plane and a scuba diver, and a murder/mugging committed by three men who share the name of the scene of the crime. All of these are built upon extreme coincidence, but he argues that it isn’t wise to reduce everything to a “matter of chance.”

There are countless films that detail the effects that simple actions humans take may reverberate on others in ways we can’t possibly predict. Most of those movies (such as “Crash,” “Babel”) suck. They twist themselves into knots trying to bring all of the people and events together, the contrivances squeezing out any larger statements about destiny, faith, etc.

But what happens if you pour in Biblical references, generational bitterness, child abuse and cosmic sing-alongs to Aimee Mann songs? Paul Thomas Anderson, America’s preeminent filmmaking genius decided in 1999, at the spry age of 29 to follow up “Boogie Nights” with something even more audacious than the fall of a porno community; an operatic storm called “Magnolia,” a three-hour opus capturing the lives of broken people of different ages and stations over one stormy day in Los Angeles. What he came up with is one of the most unique and ambitious modern American movies, which stands out because in 2013 “unique” and “ambitious” are becoming scarce adjectives in Hollywood.

All of Anderson’s films are first and foremost about people; specifically how people exploit each other for ungainly needs. There is Daniel Plainview exploiting his son in “There Will Be Blood” to gain sympathy from prospective commoners waiting to be swindled. “Punch-Drunk Love” sees Adam Sandler get abused by his sisters which adds to his anti-social behavior. This trend has never been writ larger than in “Magnolia,” which looks at, among numerous other sociological concerns, how this parasitic treatment of children, spouses, etc. causes damage across generations.

Jimmy Gator (given a tragic weariness by Philip Baker Hall) is the dying host of the quiz show “What Do Kids Know?”; with only two months to live, he tries to reach out to his estranged daughter Claudia (Melora Waters) a high-strung wreck who tries to numb the pain of this troubled family history with sex and cocaine, but may have a chance of salvation when she meets Jim ( John C. Reilly, who can do soulful doofus better than anybody ), a good-hearted but lonely and painfully naive cop who sees right past the wreckage of Claudia’s personal life and starts to feel something for her.

“Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith (a heartbreaking William H. Macy) is a hapless former winner of “What Do Kids Know?” who’s been struck by lightning and horrible luck ever since his parents stole his prize money and left him with nothing but lust for a local bartender, who Donnie tries to impress by getting unnecessary braces for his teeth.

Stanley (Jeremy Blackman, one of the best child performances I’ve ever seen) is the current child prodigy dominating the show, forced by his cruel father (Michael Bowen) to sacrifice his own happiness to compete for prize money he will likely never see. The show’s producer Earl Partridge (the great Jason Robards in his final performance) is on his deathbed, ravaged with cancer, being taken care of by his devoted nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his guilt-stricken wife Linda (a mannered but ultimately devastating Julianne Moore), who disappears into a sea of pills to quell her guilt over the numerous infidelities she’s committed. Earl has one dying wish: to reconcile with his estranged son Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise, blowing up his movie-star persona), a misogynist lunatic who teaches a seminar called “Seek and Destroy,” telling impotent men to “respect the cock and tame the cunt.” But a TV interview will unleash emotional turmoil he’s kept under lock and key his entire life.

And on top of all the hell these people are going through, gray clouds are forming over the City of Angels.

For the next three hours, “Magnolia” depicts the enlightenment and in some cases damnation of these wayward souls. This film feels like a modern opera, with its grand emotional crescendos, and a thundering score by Jon Brion. It isn’t an accident that a segment of Mozart’s “Carmen” shows up on the soundtrack as well. But the focus on this movie is about how these characters deal with turmoil created by the people around them, especially when children are involved.

Take Jimmy Gator, who has a truckload of demons to go along with his Emmys. His attempt to reconcile with his daughter Claudia fails, and he can’t stand the fact that he is near death and he’s going to spend the rest of his time going through the duldrums of hosting this showcase to exploit spoiled child prodigies. The bags under Hall’s basset hound eyes seem to get bigger scene by scene. Throw in the secrets he’s keeping from his wife (Melinda Dillon) and we have a man who wants to atone for his past mistakes, both as a parent and as a husband, but he isn’t prepared for the blowback.

Claudia is a shattered mess. She screams madness at her father when he confesses that he’s dying, and the cocaine she inhales like crazy makes her seem like a feral animal, who blasts Aimee Mann to drown out the nightmares of her past and present. Jim comes to her apartment to see about a noise complaint, and all of Claudia’s jittering, high-strung tendencies seem to bounce off him. He tries to do good in the world, but he is lost within his own optimism. A young black boy delivers rap that contains information about a recent murder to him, but he doesn’t hear it, he gets hung up over the racial slurs and the profanity. He is well-meaning, but he can’t seem to process what’s really happening with Claudia, or the world around him.

This is one of the primary themes of “Magnolia”: people trying to do the right thing (at least their idea of it) and finding that it may actually make things worse, specifically the bonds between children and their parents. Such as when Phil tries to contact Frank to reconcile with Earl, who is finally coming to terms with how horribly he treated his family for much of his life. Much to the chagrin of Linda. Linda can no longer live with herself, her guilt over cheating on Earl while cancer ravages him is breaking her down, typified by a scene where she goes on a hysterical screed against some judgmental pharmacists.

Then there are the other children in this movie. Stanley is a genius, able to answer all of the ridiculously complicated questions on “What Do Kids Know” before Gator even finishes reading them. But he’s tired of it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jeremy Blackman’s face bears a strange resemblance to Maria Falconetti’s in Carl Dreyer’s immortal 1928 silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” Both are the subjects of great suffering; Stanley is forced by his asshat of a father (Michael Bowen) to be on this show and the other kid contestants make him answer all of the questions. It’s when the producers refuse to let Stanley go to the bathroom during the show that he finally breaks down and has his own personal reckoning. Blackman’s performance is amazing; his expressive, pale face able to represent all sorts of sadness, embarrassment and frustration.

Donnie Smith does not get to publicly destroy the show that defined and ruined his life. He sits in a bar longing for a bartender who doesn’t even notice him, he just lost his job and he engages in a philosophical debate with an older patron (Henry Gibson), who also has feelings for the bartender. Donnie is what may happen to Stanley if he confuses exploitation with happiness. The patron warns Donnie that it’s “dangerous to confuse children with angels.” But what Donnie and Anderson are arguing for in “Magnolia” is that this is bullshit; the destruction of children’s lives can have reverberations across decades.

None more so than one Frank T.J. Mackey. His “Seduce and Destroy” seminar teaches men to destroy any and all feeling toward women; they are meant for sex and nothing more. One poster says to think of them as “sperm receptacles.” The seminar scenes are powered by the crazed energy that only Tom Cruise can bring. But then during a TV interview with an intrepid reporter his past, and his own nature, are exposed as lies. I single out Cruise because his performance, far and away the best he’s ever given, is emblematic for the whole movie. Not because Anderson slowly deconstructs and explodes Cruise’s singular movie-star charisma. Mackey is, like Stanley, Donnie and Claudia, a scared, broken and angry child, forced to take care of his dying mother as a teenager and then watch her die while his father abandoned them, then spent his life teaching others not to have emotional connections with women; it’s how he avoids catharsis, by turning everyone around him into sociopaths. Mackey’s confrontation with Earl (given a powerful, Lear-like portrayal by Robards, who died not long after the film’s release) is shattering. Mackey becomes a boy, howling for love and approval, knowing he will never get it.

P.T. Anderson was 29 when he made this movie, and already his command of the medium was breathtaking. Later films like “The Master” and “There Will Be Blood” were slowed-down, almost eerie in their minimalism. But “Magnolia” shows Anderson still in pastiche mode, with odes to Scorsese and especially Robert Altman showing up repeatedly. But this mournful, operatic tale is bursting with energy. I’m amazed that cinematographer Robert Elswit didn’t collapse from exhaustion on the set, since the camerawork is so dizzying; zooming, circling, tracking and all sorts of other gymnastics in service of the wunderkind Anderson’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink vision. His use of music is also peerless, with the Wagnerian heft of Brion’s score and the jaunty melancholy in Aimee Mann’s original songs.

Anderson’s craft, in concert with his screenplay, shows a filmmaker who cares deeply about people, whether they be decent, monstrous, dying or all of the above. These lives build toward happiness and despair, typified by the group sing along to Mann’s “Wise Up,” a piano-driven plea for inner strength. We think we know how these stories are going to wrap up.

And then “chance” intervenes, and something extraordinary happens.

The Biblical downpour that closes this film strikes some as pretentious and nonsensical. But it makes total sense, not just because of the allusions in countless scenes to the quote from Exodus at the top of this review. It hits home that something cosmic, maybe God or maybe just unusual weather patterns, can intrude on humanity when we least expect it. Some of these people find peace in the storm’s wake; others find death, damnation, abandonment. Anderson is our generation’s most gifted director and “Magnolia” is still his wildest and most profoundly human film to date because it throws everything that encompasses the human experience into the world of these characters, both literally and figuratively raining it down upon them. The only thing we can do in the face of chance and wild coincidence is to bring an umbrella.