Sunday, November 3, 2013

No Such Thing

There's a certain amount of sweet nostalgia involved when I review a Hal Hartley film. Hartley, who in his career has only come within shouting distance of the studio system (Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope produced No Such Thing), will for me always be a symbol of the independent film boom of the late 1980's and early 1990's. Years ago I found a VHS copy of Hartley's Simple Men in a Tower Records clearance bin in suburban Atlanta, and it feels like I've had to work just as hard to see most of his output since then. I had no idea until now, for instance, of Hartley's involvement in . 2001's No Such Thing feels like as much of a bid for mainstream acceptance as Hartley is capable of. There are well-known names (Helen Mirren, Julie Christie), a young star with credibility (Sarah Polley, now a hot director herself), and a plot elemental enough to resonate with audiences. Polley plays Beatrice, a young journalist whose fiancee has disappeared while investigating the supposing sighting of a monster in Iceland. (No Such Thing was funded in part by the Icelandic Film Council, and not to be cynical but I think the funding at least in part explains the setting.) Beatrice takes off for Iceland with the blessing of her producer (played broadly by Mirren) but on the way she stumbles into celebrity when she becomes the sole survivor of a plane crash into the Atlantic Ocean. Put back into the world thanks to a kindly doctor (Christie) and a bizarre operation, Beatrice is soon among a group of villagers who view her as an ideal sacrificial candidate to appease the Monster (Robert John Burke).

Hartley's conception of the Monster anticipates a complaint we've heard all too often in the last decade: Modern life has become both too fast and too trivial ("No one's scared of me anymore."), and it's enough make a monster want to kill someone. Or in this case, many people. Despite it's beauty and the beast trappings No Such Thing isn't a story about inner beauty or appreciating differences, but rather about checking out to follow one's own path. Hartley works in his usual dryly funny style; there's an almost-blind scientist (Baltasar Kormakur) who's good for some slapstick humor and who may hold the key to the Monster's future. Burke plays the Monster with the same air of resignation he brought to Hartley's Simple Men and Polley brings the same flinty intelligence to Beatrice that is on display in all of her work. There is no interest in ending the film on a note of conventional uplift, but that's hardly surprising. Both Hartley and his characters are dissatisfied with what they see around them, but if No Such Thing has a central idea it's that there's nothing wrong with choosing to exist on one's own terms.

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