Tag Archives: Stephen McKinley Henderson


Civil War

by George Wolf

Writer/director Alex Garland gets to the point quickly in Civil War, via battle-weary photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst).

“Every time I’ve survived a war zone, I thought I was sending a warning home: don’t do this.”

“But here we are.”

Smith and her colleague Joel (Wagner Moura) are preparing for the 857-mile drive from New York to D.C. during a very active civil war in near-future America. Their press credentials may bring sympathy from some they encounter, and deadly aggression from others. The danger only intensifies when they agree to bring along elderly reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and the aspiring young photojournalist Jessie (Priscilla‘s Cailee Spaeny).

The goal? A face-to-face interview with a President (Nick Offerman) who has disbanded the FBI, ordered air strikes against American citizens, and has not taken questions for over a year.

Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Men) is careful not to tip his political hand. Though a couple lines of dialog give you a vague glimpse about what type of policies the President favors, we’re repeatedly told resistance is coming from the “Western Forces” led by California and Texas. The nicely subtle mix of red and blue state rebellion makes it clear the point here is not purely idealogical.

“Don’t do this.”

And though many a road movie has leaned on that narrative device for a flimsy connection of random ideas, Garland uses the trip to D.C. to bolster his very ambitious idea with tension-filled looks at the heartland. Through an uneasy stop for gas, the visit to a town the war forgot, a marksman’s simple rules of engagement, and a brutal citizenship test from an unforgettable Jesse Plemons, we’re immersed in a war-torn America that seems authentically terrifying.

But it’s all just a prelude to the carnage ahead.

Because once it settles in D.C., the film becomes a war movie that will batter your senses with a barrage of breathless execution.

Dunst has never been better, particularly in the moments when Lee’s stoic rationalizing can no longer come to her rescue, or ours. Garland gives us the vulnerable Jessie as a logical entry point in the early going, but as she joins Joel in feeding off the war zone rush, moralities become more complicated.

As draining as it often is, Civil War is also an exhilarating, sobering and necessary experience. Smartly written and expertly crafted, the film manages to honor the work of wartime photojournalists as it delivers a chilling vision. It’s one beyond left or right, where the slippery slope of dehumanization breeds a willingly and violently divisible America we always professed to be beneath us.

Ari, Are You OK? Are You OK, Ari?

Beau Is Afraid

by Hope Madden

Is Ari Aster all right?

Asking as a fan who is starting to think Hereditary was autobiographical.

Aster’s new 3-hour self-indulgent opus Beau Is Afraid revisits the scene of his 7-minute 2011 short film Beau, in which a middle-aged man loses his keys and is delayed in his plan to visit his mother.

For his exponentially longer feature, Aster employs the inarguably brilliant Joaquin Phoenix.

Phoenix is Beau Isaac Wasserman from Wasserton and he is living a nightmare of undiluted Freudian scope. Things seem fine as we open on his session with his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson, slyly hilarious), who prescribes some new meds. But Beau’s walk back to his apartment is a descent into Escape from New York territory. Escalating tension leads to a naked, corpse-leaping, maniac-fleeing car accident that lands Beau in the highly medicated home of Roger (Nathan Lane, an absolute treat) and Grace (Amy Ryan, always welcome).

But he needs to get to his mom’s house.

Aster generates much of the same kind of primal, ceaseless tension of the Safdies’ Uncut Gems or Aronofsky’s Mother. But he embraces the absurdity of it all in a way the others did not. At times, his film is astonishingly beautiful. There’s a surreal theatricality to the middle portion that’s stunning, but even the comparatively mundane scenes are shot gorgeously.

And as odd as they are, performances throughout are great. Patti LuPone, Kylie Rogers, Parker Posey, Zoe Lister-Jones, Armen Nahapetian, Hayley Squires, Richard Kind, Julian Richlings and a barely glimpsed but nonetheless memorable Bill Hader all add intrigue as they populate Beau’s increasingly desperate and blisteringly imaginative quest to get to his mom’s place.

But damn, it is long. And it asks a lot. Beau Is Afraid is essentially a 3-hour string of traumatic dream sequences, beautiful but shapeless, leading to something out of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. And if Hereditary triggered your mother issues, for the love of God, do not see Beau Is Afraid.

The similarities between Aster’s 2018 horror are legion: the house, the attic, the physically beaten son, a headless body – you’re almost waiting for Mona (LuPone) to deliver the line “I am your mother!”

All told, Beau Is Afraid is a fascinating, gorgeously realized vision and I don’t think you’re going to like it. I can’t say I liked it. I admire it, am stunned by it, and kind of want to see it again. Maybe I do like it, I can’t tell.

One thing I know for sure, Aster is still working some shit out.