Film reviews: Night Hunter | Honeyland | For Sama | Phoenix
Night Hunter (15) **
Honeyland (12A) ****
For Sama (18) ****
Phoenix (15) ***
Not so much a homage to Silence of the Lambs and Seven as a throwback to the glut of serial killer thrillers that followed in their wake, Night Hunter serves up an incoherent cinematic trip down memory lane as another should-know-better cast find themselves wrestling with their own characters’ irrational behaviour while said characters investigate the ludicrously convoluted crimes of an evil genius psycho. Using his own clipped British accent, Henry Cavill takes the nominal lead as Marshall, a Minnesota-based detective who teams up with an FBI cyber crimes profiler (Alexandra Daddario) and, covertly, a judge-turned-vigilante (Ben Kingsley) to stop a serial murderer and rapist responsible for a spate of missing teens. In a little nod to Primal Fear, the film has the cops capture the perpetrator early, with Brendan Fletcher delivering an unhinged performance as a mentally and hearing-impaired abuse survivor whose suspected multiple personality disorder must be delicately deconstructed if the authorities are to have any chance of finding his still-missing abductees – something made more difficult by the numerous booby trapped clues he’s left behind. Though there are also nods here to recent genre-reviving efforts such as Netflix’s Mindhunter, HBO’s True Detective (on which Daddario appeared) and Denis Villeneuve’s 2013 film Prisoners, debut writer/director David Raymond’s film exists in the sort of movie universe where police brutality goes unchecked and trained professionals act in ways that never feel credible. A surfeit of plot succeeds only in confusing the story, not complicating it in the kind of way that might have made its big twist the sort of jaw-dropping revelation it clearly wants to be. Stanley Tucci and Nathan Fillion further fill out the overqualified cast.
In the opening scenes of the documentary Honeyland, directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov track a middle-aged Macedonian woman as she hikes through meadows and along a precarious mountain ridge to retrieve some honeycomb that she needs to start a new hive in her garden. The woman is Hatidze Muratova, the last female bee hunter in Europe and, as the early parts of the film show, she’s a woman who understands the delicate balance that needs to be struck in order to make a living off such hard-scrabble land. With only her elderly mother for company, she lives a fairly tough but serene existence, which suggests the film is going to be another typically respectful, even idealised ethnographic portrait of a traditional yet moribund way of life. Gradually, though, it morphs into a more universal drama as her world is disrupted by an unruly family who move in nearby and seem determined to exploit the land in order to make a quick buck. Though Hatidze has the patience of a saint, welcoming the daily intrusions of the family’s multiple young children into her home, the bumbling efforts of family patriarch Ljutvie to use Hatidze’s largely uninhabited hamlet to mass produce honey himself throws everything out of whack and threatens this resilient woman’s entire existence. Hell is other people, in other words, and what follows in microcosm is an all-too-relatable reminder not just of the environmental consequences of failing to take a holistic approach to agriculture, but of the devastation that can be wrought by incompetent men overestimating their own ability to execute their ill-thought-through plans. The end result is a subtly rendered story for our times.
For Sama also serves up a story for our times, but the result is more direct and disturbing, offering an unflinching ground-level view of the atrocities committed against ordinary Syrians during the siege of Aleppo. Drawing on 300-plus hours of footage shot by 20-something-student-turned-citizen-journalist Waad al-Kateab, the film is framed as an extended video diary for her daughter, the titular Sama, whose birth amidst the chaos wrought by president Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial crackdown on the Arab Spring uprising forces Waad to imagine how she might one day explain her decision to bring a child into such a violent and dangerous world. Married to Hamza, a doctor who sets up a hospital to deal with the dozens of civilians injured on a daily basis, Waad is eventually forced to live with Sama and Hamza in the hospital itself, its rooms sand-bagged in a not-always-successful effort to prevent shrapnel and shell casings penetrating what should be neutral territory. Filming constantly to ensure this daily nightmare can’t be denied, Waad’s footage is horrifying and heartbreaking as she refuses to flinch, even from scenes of maimed or dead children. But she also captures moments of surreal humour and even unadorned joy, showing in unforced ways how resilient people can be, even when faced with near constant threats to their lives and the lives of their children.
Although Norwegian coming-of-age drama Phoenix owes a small debt to Guillermo Del Toro’s genre-hopping explorations of childhood, don’t go in expecting as wild or as haunting a ride. Revolving around a 14-year-old girl (Ylva Bjørkaas Thedin) forced to become the primary care-giver for her younger brother and unstable mother,
writer-director Camilla Strøm Henriksen’s film is more sober in its approach, using subtle horror elements to underscore its claustrophobic dramatisation of the monstrous ways people can be robbed of their childhood by parents who refuse to take their responsibilities seriously. ■