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great film portrays some costs of devilishly difficult moral choices
"Night Catches Us" is the best art-house film I've seen in several months. In fact it bests a lot of the current main-screen fare. It deserves better than the quiet and uneven release it seems destined for.
I saw it back-to-back with the Oscar contender "The King's Speech". It balanced the double bill reasonably well. Although "The King's Speech" is of course superior, the comparison wasn't simply ridiculous.
I saw it twice ...which I often do with films I really like, as I tend to miss too many things the first time.
It's not moralistic. Both sides of survival vs. justice, violence vs. pacifism, united front vs. paranoia, victims vs. victimizers, and this generation vs. the next generation are portrayed sympathetically. Although at first glance one particular style of being seems to be being touted over the others, just a little reflection reveals that the film actually revels in moral ambiguity. Some characters manage to stay on the good side of the respectability line at all times, even while their inner demons are picked up and expressed -sometimes in socially unacceptable ways- by others around them. The camera notices more latent contradictions than the story ever delves into. For example the reverend was apparently beloved by the neighborhood, yet also lived in by far the finest house in the whole area.
The film isn't a polemic and doesn't seem to consciously attempt to portray cops in a bad light. Yet it doesn't shy away from sketches of substantial police bad attitude and violence.
"Night Catches Us" makes liberal use of art-house stylistic conventions. For example the confused, tangled, and partially submerged thoughts of a character are portrayed not by talking about them or even by seeing them in action, but by long leisurely shots from underneath of the crossed branches of overgrown vegetation. For another example, a character's longing for stability and tranquility is portrayed by lengthy shots of the proverbial babbling brook.
I wasn't irritated by the pacing. The film is by no means an action flick or a taut thriller, but I didn't find it like watching paint dry either. I tend to like slower paced films anyway (which of course doesn't mean everybody else will too:-). The most similarly paced movie that comes to mind is Clint Eastood's recent "Hereafter"; if you thought that was impossibly slow you'll probably have the same reaction to "Night Catches Us", but if that character exposition and portrayal of small events grabbed you this likely will too.
All the action takes place over just a few days in 1976. A block of important events that happened about a decade earlier is described mainly through bits of dialog. There are no visual flashbacks nor dream sequences (except of course for the occasional interspersed archival Black Panthers footage).
I found the acting quite good. It doesn't bowl you over as the greatest thing you've seen in years; but it's by no means "just workmanlike". Quite often meaning is communicated not by dialog but by subtle body language or facial expressions, which the actors seem fully up to. Both the individual characters and the chemistry between the characters are believably convincing.
I found the situation (or plot if you prefer to think of it that way) simple and complex at the same time. It's simple in that once you finally grasp it you can describe the whole thing in one short paragraph, and in that if you're one of those people who instantly "get" most movie clues you might be able to divine the whole thing well in advance. On the other hand it's complex in that it's revealed only one tiny bit at a time -sometimes in dialog and sometimes visually- so the whole movie can become a "mystery" to be solved if that's your preference.
5 of 7 people found this review helpful.
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