Reviews of Michael
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The opening scenes of Michael are deceivingly unremarkable. The title character returns home from a day at work where he is an insurance salesman. He proceeds through the exercises of home life (groceries, dinner, the washing-up), and then proceeds to the basement where behind a bolted door is a 10-year old boy. The implications are painfully clear, but the focus of the film is not on the acts themselves, but the strange and grotesquely domestic arrangement of Michael and the boy, Wolfgang. It is this collection of moments of banal domesticity interleaved with spates of horror in succession which comprise an astutely observed character study, both chillingly disturbing and darkly comic at times.
My full thoughts here.
- Currently 5.0/5 Stars.
You can feel your heart sink right as it starts. The steel blinds slowly come down, the sound proof doors are opened, and dinner is prepared for two. Average looking Michael (Michael Fuith) opens up another door and simply says “come on” like your dad tells you to get out of bed.
You know what is happening, and the feeling is terrible at first. After a long moment of breath holding, a young boy emerges from the darkened room. The both of them sit down for dinner. The boy is not eating, but Michael is. If you aren’t already noticing the obvious, the scene looks like a father and son mourning the loss of someone.
The boy asks “can I watch telly tonight?”
Michael replies “Until 9:00”
That is the opening to Michael, a new movie directed by the casting director of Haneke’s The White Ribbon, Markus Schleinzer. This is his debut feature film, and to call it unsettling is an understatement. From what I just described to you, Michael may seem like an unbearable experience, but this is very watchable.
Michael has abducted this small boy (named Wolfgang, I believe, no more than 8 yrs) and keeps him isolated in a small room filled with toys, crayons, and a nice bed. When Michael goes out Wolfgang sits alone, slowly losing touch with whoever he was (or belonged to). In an early scene, Wolfgang plays with his hair, whispering something. Then he colors all day, hoping his letter and drawing will be mailed to his parents. Michael keeps all Wolfgang’s letters and drawings in a box, and cruelly tells the boy his parents no longer want him and he must do everything Michael says. Well, the words are cruel, but Michael Fuith’s delivery is so much more painful because you would believe him.
Michael is a good worker. He keeps to himself, does his job, and avoids socialization. It is clear he is not happy, and his driving motivation is to come home to the child. His feelings for the boy are perfectly summarized when Michael is about to molest, but Wolfgang whimpers. Michael asks what is wrong, and Wolfgang says he is sick. When Michael takes his temperature, he panics.
From there, Michael takes extra care of Wolfgang. Calling in sick and keeping Wolfgang warm, leaving his body alone and giving him medicine. Yet, Michael goes out into the woods and begins digging. Michael is prepared for the Wolfgang to die, and even if he lives he takes into consideration that he cannot keep Wolfgang forever.
When Wolfgang heals, the hole is not seen again, and the cycle continues. But Michael goes searching for another boy to abduct and take Wolfgang’s place. He even builds a bunk bed and tells Wolfgang he will soon have a friend.
At times Wolfgang is affectionate and depending of Michael, and Michael is to him. But we are soon reminded of how broken their whole relationship is when the pants come off every night.
Michael occasionally tries to cheer Wolfgang up, like throwing snowballs at him, taking him to the zoo, and teasing his strength when Wolfgang hits his legs in fury. I don’t want to say Michael tries to be fatherly to Wolfgang, that is hard to tell. When he is digging the hole, I could not tell if he was worried about losing the boy he molests or the boy he cares about. It may be both.
There are moments in this film that are perfect. Depressing yet fascinating. Like when Michael tries to tell a joke to Wolfgang to make what he does seem normal and funny. Wolfgang’s reply to this joke is simply shattering. Does Michael understand just how wrong this all is? Thats far beyond my comprehension. Moments like that in the film are overwhelming in despair. The scenes of suspense when Michael couldn’t be closer to getting caught are enough to make the floor below you shake.
Fuith’s performance is what makes the film. As the viewer, we are as isolated with Michael not so much as Wolfgang is, but Michael is with himself. Fuith is always what changes the mood, makes us calm or nervous, or even excited. Strong credit also goes to Schleinzer, who sets the mood excellently in the beginning and is unrelenting in the depiction. In an interview I believe was taken at Cannes last year (it was in competition), he said he picked Fuith for his looks, no offense intended. Fuith doesn’t look like a pedophile, but he has the facial expression of someone masking something. This is the role he was born to play.
You never doubt Schleinzer will make a misstep, but the film’s only visible flaw is when it does break away from Michael and Wolfgang towards the end. I felt the film was only about those two, and it was much more affecting that way. Still, Michael is an overall incredible movie. It is on Netflix Streaming at the moment if you wish to watch it.
- Currently 4.0/5 Stars.
The only reason I saw this was off the strength that the person responsible for it (first time director Michael Schleinzer) was the casting director for two of the greatest films made in the last decade (Michael Haneke’s ‘The White Ribbon’ & ‘The Piano Teacher’). Not that that should be any definite indication that he’d be a great director, but if he had anything to do with the casting of those two films that means he should have SOME kinda talent. But unfortunately Schleinzer’s directorial debut is almost pointless and not even his association with one of my favorite directors (Haneke) could help him. If you’re familiar with the type of film that ‘Michael’ is and the category/genre it falls under (a humanistic portrayal of child molesters/pedophiles, it may leave you going; “ok, sooooo…?” (similar to my reaction after watching ‘Kill List’). I had more than one opportunity to see ‘Michael’ before it was released in theaters but the subject matter completely turned me off. Much like post-2003 films about high school shootings, I get a little indifferent towards films about pedophilia these days (I know that sounds odd coming from Todd Solondz’ #1 fan but hear me out…). After Dylan Baker’s performance in ‘Happiness’ and Brian Cox’s performance in ‘L.I.E.’ (two criminally underrated and snubbed roles), where else is there to go? What’s left too explore in the genre of realistic and/or humanistic portrayals of pedophiles?
Between the late 90’s &the first half of the last decade, indie film had this sudden fascination with showing not only the reality of child molestation and pedophilia, but actually showing things from the pedophiles point of view, almost bordering on sympathy which is pretty dangerous and fucked up. Films like Francois Ozon’s ‘Criminal Lovers’ (1999), Solondz’ ‘Happiness’ (1998) & ‘Palindromes’ (2004), Michael Cuesta’s ‘L.I.E.’ (2001) and Greg Araki’s ‘Mysterious Skin’ (2004) are all examples of this. These films helped show people the real horrors of child molestation (and some films like ‘Mysterious Skin’ & ‘L.I.E.’ even went so far as to symbolize how important it is for fathers to be present in the lives of their sons). When you show the stereotypical creepy old man with one tooth or the heavily breathing sweaty monstrous man, sometimes it makes pedophilia and child molestation more like a fantasy and less realistic which shouldn’t be the case. Hell, the Coen Brothers made us laugh subconsciously at pedophiles with characters like “Jesus” in ‘Big Lebowski’ (I wonder if people realize that when they wear one of those novelty Big Lebowski shirts with his image on it, they’re wearing a picture of a fictitious child molester). The films I listed above were ahead of their time in that they showed us that everyone from the handsome baseball coach (‘Mysterious Skin’) to the neighborhood “uncle” that everyone loves (‘L.I.E.’) could have a dark side that no one could possibly know about.
But its 2012 and we (the audience) get it by now; pedophiles are monsters no matter how sympathetic or humanistic you try to portray them on film. Most people already know that a pedophile or sex offender could very well be the last person you expect (which is PART of what ‘Michael’ tries to convey). Why would someone wanna sit through 90 minutes of something that’s super obvious? ‘Michael’ didn’t really bring anything new to the table (outside of showing things from the abused child’s perspective). Films like ‘Mysterious Skin’ & ‘L.I.E.’ already did what ‘Michael’ tried to do (show a complex father & son, big brother/little brother, tormented Stockholm syndrome relationship between the child molester and his victim). In my opinion, when you’re making a film about child molestation you kinda have to try and be somewhat original because if not, you’re just making a slight variation of a movie that’s already been done a million times before and it’ll seem like your only purpose was to shock the audience (although that’s not the case with this film).
‘Michael’ shows us the day to day life off “ordinary”, middle class, “everyman”: “Michael”. He goes to work every day where he keeps his head down and socializing to a minimum, has a family that cares for him (a mother, a sister and a brother), pays his bills and does everything else you and I do. The only difference between Michael and the average everyman is that hes keeping a little boy (“Wolfgang”) locked up in a secret shed beneath his house. That’s right, hes a pedophile (and no one suspects him). His methods are precise and he’s very careful not to get caught. But Michael’s world slowly starts to crumble and he becomes more and more careless as the film progresses. Only in the final minutes of the film is there any type of a resolution…kinda. I say “kinda” because like I said earlier (as well as in the title of the blog), I felt nothing after watching it (outside of the obvious sympathy for the young kidnapped boy). I wasn’t angry, sad, confused, disoriented or anything. All I could do was give a shoulder shrug and head home. If the point of ‘Michael’ was to show the horrific things that go on beneath the seemingly normal surface, then I’d rather watch ‘Happiness’. If you’re trying to make a film that questions the idea of what a “Monster” truly is, I’d recommend focusing on something other than a Pedophile because it’s a little played out.
However, there were SOME good qualities about the film that shouldn’t go unmentioned. Working with Michael Haneke (who got a lot of influence from the later films of Robert Bresson) clearly had an effect on Markus Schleinzer’s directorial debut. The somewhat slow pacing, the extended focus on banalities like preparing the table for dinner & washing the dishes afterwards as well as the minimal soundtrack totally reminded me of early Michael Haneke (“The Austrian Years”). I enjoyed the atmosphere of this film very much and I hope Schleinzer keeps it up for his next couple of films. Like the ending of Haneke’s ‘71 fragments’ or the messages behind ‘The 7th Continent’ and ‘Funny Games’, its clear Markus Shcleinzer was trying to make an honest attempt at being thought provoking. Its also clear that not only did he spend lots of time watching early Haneke films, but other dark noir’s like ‘Vanishing’. Both ‘Vanishing’ and ‘Michael’ are about regular family men who are methodically plotting some diabolic criminal activity without anyone being suspicious of them (however the fate of our main character in ‘Michael’ is completely different than the fate of our villain in ‘Vanishing’). Another thing you need to give Markus Schleinzer credit for is that with this kinda subject matter he had a golden opportunity to try and shock the audience (which woulda made it more problematic than it already is). This is such an easy route that quite a few first time directors have gotten caught up in over the years from the racist butcher punching his pregnant wife in the stomach in Gaspar Noe’s ‘I Stand Alone’ to the blood splattering and ear chopping in Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’. Outside of two kinda fucked up scenes that clearly indicate a rape has or will take place, there’s no graphic or disturbing imagery. The intentions of the film were good, but I think there needed to be a little more thought put in to the story. Or maybe Schleinzer coulda used his obvious talents (which will serve him well in the future) on a whole different project all together. Whats strange is that I actually have the urge to watch this again. As far as plot or message go, I wanna give ‘Michael’ a C-/D+. But as far as film making, style and atmosphere go, I wanna give it a A-/B+. I guess no matter how many problems the film has, it still succeeded in some way. It got me to take the time out to write about it on my blog over other/better films that I plan on writing about in the future (‘The Reflecting Skin’, ‘Yi Yi’ & ‘CQ’ to name a few). It managed to draw a positive comparison to some works (‘The 7th Continent’, ‘71 Fragments’ and ‘Vanishing’) so it did something right. But overall I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone outside of a few people who’s tastes i really know.
- Currently 3.0/5 Stars.