Jonathan Demme's Death Brought Me Back To His Political Thriller, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE

Jonathan Demme, acclaimed (and beloved) director of The Silence of the Lambs, PhiladelphiaRachel Getting Married, and others, passed away earlier this week. In recognition of that fact, I took some time to re-watch his 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate (currently streaming on NETFLIX INSTANT). It’s not his finest (or most famous) work, yet it highlights a number of the things that made him such a successful filmmaker.

First, an observation sparked by a Twitter comment I saw yesterday: His use of close-ups is an incredibly distinctive stylistic (and storytelling) decision; it’s also significantly unusual (seems to me), and exceedingly risky. My favorite scene—the moment when Denzel Washington’s Major Bennett Marco finally has the chance to discuss his recurring and mysterious nightmares with Liev Schreiber’s Senator Raymond Shaw—is composed almost entirely of close-ups. The performances are superb and the close-ups work; spectacularly so. But if they didn’t, there’d be nowhere for Washington or Schreiber (or Demme) to hide. It’s a huge risk, really, but the film is far better because Demme was willing to take it.

Second, the mood is both hard to pin down and spectacularly effective. I can’t quite identify the cause of this, but there’s a profoundly unsettling—even hallucinatory—that begins at its earliest frames, and persists all the way through to the end. That mood (and the fact that I can’t quite figure out why it’s there) points to Demme’s genius, methinks.

Despite these noteworthy facts, the film is not a complete success. The updated setting works a lot better than I would have expected, and manages to give us that little “something new” that I’m always looking for when a legendary film is remade. The visuals and more technical elements are excellent, if not particularly flashy. And the performances are mostly excellent, as well—Washington’s perfectly acceptable in his standard Everyman role, and as enjoyable to watch as ever. (He's also genuinely funny, at times, and that's always a nice change-of-pace.)

But Streep seems as though she belongs in a different film, somehow. In Frankenheimer’s original, Angela Lansbury’s Queen of Diamonds was a truly chilling presence, rendered even more terrifying by having the charming and friendly actress who most remember as Mrs. Potts/Jessica Fletcher taking on such a calculating, malevolent role. But there is a subtlety to Lansbury’s performance that is entirely lacking in Streep’s Eleanor; in her hands, Mrs. Senator Shaw becomes little more than a clanging, absurd mouthpiece. She’s awful, really, and it’s a strange misstep from a director whose reputation was built in no small measure on his reputation as an actor’s director.

Which brings me (in a roundabout way) to the best thing about the film: Schreiber. He’s amazing, really; the aforementioned close-ups are wonderful showcases for the haunted, profoundly unsure, profoundly unsettling candidate who lies at the film’s core. It is here that Demme’s tendency to use close-ups (and his ability to elicit a strange and somewhat unidentifiable unease) is used to greatest effect, and the strange half-happy/half-sad smile that flits across Schreiber’s face perfectly captures the torment of being held up (and revered) as a hero for years, all the while feeling yourself something else entirely. I really, really like his performance. (I’m still not quite sure what to make of the ending, though. Shaw makes a conscious—and heroic—choice, clearly. But does Marco?)

Years after his squad was ambushed during the Gulf War, Major Ben Marco finds himself having terrible nightmares. He begins to doubt that his fellow squad-mate Sergeant Raymond Shaw, now a vice-presidential candidate, is the hero he remembers him being. As Marco's doubts deepen, Shaw's political power grows, and, when Marco finds a mysterious implant embedded in his back, the memory of what really happened begins to return.
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