Monday, September 20, 2010

NEVER LET ME GO - aka: Bleakest. Movie. Ever.


Never Let Me Go is a hard film to assess. It features a fascinating premise and fantastic, memorable performances from its three lead actors. It combines the pacing and attention to character of a classic British coming-of-age drama with the unsettling, ominous feel and grand themes of the great works of dystopian sci-fi. It has the feel of a unique, underdog sort of film that deserves support and praise. And yet, if I'm being honest, the fact is that Never Let Me Go is so unrelentingly bleak and depressing that at times it's just plain hard to watch. I don't have a problem with movies being dark or even bleak, but I do ask that such movies have an ultimate message or purpose to them - something to take away from the story that puts it all in perspective. Walking out of the Arclight theater in Hollywood, I wasn't sure what to make of the film. There were moments of greatness, award-worthy performances ... but what did it all mean? It sounds like a lame question in some ways, but it can be a real problem for certain films (I had a similar complaint recently with The American - what, exactly, was the point?). Especially after the rollercoaster ride that this movie takes us on, I needed some sort of resolution to the movie's depressing plot - some bigger-picture context, some lesson learned. But I left the theater feeling mostly empty.

I know that the film has been marketed under a veil of secrecy, but the structure of the movie (based on the book by acclaimed author Kazuo Ishiguro) doesn't do much to conceal any big twists or mysteries. In fact, the opening text crawl quickly establishes some basics about the world of the film: in the 1950's, scientists found a way to clone humans in order to harvest their organs to eradicate sickness and disease. Cancer, diabetes - all gone, with the price being that there is now a sub-population of clones who will be turned into spare parts by the time they're 30. Never Let Me Go opens in one of the isolated British boarding schools in which the clone children are raised - mostly oblivious as to their true nature and the grisly fate that awaits them. The movie focuses in on a trio of kids who are going through all of the usual pre-adolescent struggles and crushes and uncertainties - Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. Kathy is the shy, reserved girl who harbors a crush on Tommy - the awkward but endearing outcast. Ruth is Kathy's catty friend, who pursues Tommy more as a means of one-upping Kathy than anything else. The movie is divided neatly into three acts - the first follows the trio as boarding school students in the 70's. We then pick up several years later, when the kids, now in their late teens, are shipped off to a camp that gives them, for the first time, limited access to the outside world. Finally, we skip ahead another ten years, and rejoin the characters as they prepare for their seemingly inevitable fates.

To attack the movie from a different perspective, I'll say this: Never Let Me Go is a hard movie to watch for anyone with even a little bit of sci-fi nerd in them. The reason is that us geeks love to know everything. When we are taken to a new version of reality, we want to know all the rules, all the ins and outs, all the ways in which this place is both like and unlike the world that we know. In Never Let Me Go, we're teased with very, very scant bits of information about this alternate version of reality. And I get the reason for it - the movie is trying to place us in the shoes of the main characters, who similarly know very little about the nature of their own existence. But the movie rarely, if ever, shows us the characters actively questioning things. It makes you wonder what, exactly, these kids were taught in their schools. How much did they know about the world around them, and how much did the world know about them? I think some level of ambiguity is good, and adds to the atmosphere of uncertainty, but I also think the movie "cheats" by never concerning itself very much with the how's and why's of the somewhat far-fetched scenario it presents. Not only that, but as it becomes increasingly apparent that the characters are in a very perilous situation, one in which they are in imminent mortal danger, it becomes increasingly frustrating that they don't at least *ponder* options for escape. Everyone in the film seems resigned to accept their bleak fates with barely a rebellious moment between them. And so it makes you wonder - what is the story here? Why tell us about these characters if they are wholly unexceptional within the world that they live? It makes you think - is a story worth telling if it's only real arc is "characters accept their bleak fate and sadness ensues?" Maybe some people can accept that, but for me, it's a frustrating story to see unfold. There has to be some spark of hope, something. Look at a movie like THE ROAD - to me, that was a great example of a dark, bleak film that nonetheless worked because all the darkness led up to something poignant and meaningful. That was a story of survival and perseverance. Never Let Me Go is a story of resignation and inaction.

As mentioned, we're only given the briefest hints as to the larger context that this story takes place in. But again, the lack of curiosity that the main characters have about their own situation is more frustrating than tantalizing. I mean, I love stories where characters find out that everything they thought they knew was a lie. It's why I was so intrigued by this film once I heard sippets about its plot. But Never Let Me Go never has that big Truman Show-style moment of realization and epiphany. It just marches a slow death-march towards oblivion.

Still, there are moments of real power in the movie. I don't want to gloss over the fact that there are some hugely emotional, memorable scenes in the film. And when the movie starts to ramp up the stakes, when it gives its characters a purpose - that's when it really becomes absorbing. In fact, there's a great scene towards the end of the film that's a real eye-opener for the characters, and it's really well done and well-acted and effective. But it felt like a scene that should have happened earlier. It felt like, finally, the characters had some motivation, some hope - but when even that ray of hope is shot down, it's back to the extreme melancholy that colors the rest of the story.

The whole of the movie though is really brought to life by the cast. First of all, the child actors from the movie's first act are all really, really good. Izzy Meikle-Small who plays young Kathy is particularly exceptional. Those young actors really help add to the movie's air of mystery, and make the first act, surprisingly, perhaps the movie's strongest and most satisfying.

Later on, the main trio is portrayed by Carrie Mulligan as Kathy, Kiera Knightly as Ruth, and Andrew Garfield as Tommy. All three do some amazing work. Mulligan is so poised, so steady as Kathy - and yet there's that undercurrent of sadness and longing. Knightly is wild and bitchy as Ruth, and that makes her eventual fate all the more disturbing. Meanwhile, Andrew Garfield is the real deal. He's fantastic in this film (and fanboys can rest assured he'll do well as Spiderman - it should be no problem for him to do justice in that role). Garfield has some of the movie's most heart-wrenching moments of raw emotion, and man, he kills it. All three actors are great, and they give the movie that feeling of award-worthy prestige that makes it stand out and feel like something special. And even as the movie becomes almost unbearably wrenching, it's hard to avert your eyes thanks to the top-notch quality of the performances.

Maybe the unrelenting bleakness of Never Let Me Go will work for some. There's enough to like about the film that I'm sure there are those who will love this one without reservation. But to me, the type of story being told here doesn't mesh with what actually happens. We're shown this disturbing, dystopian society, and introduced to these interesting characters who want, on some level, to escape their grim fates. And then ... nothing. I'm not saying I want the movie to be like every other movie of this type. I don't want paint-by-numbers. I don't want it to be The Island. I like and appreciate that Never Let Me Go is something genuinely different in terms of theme and storytelling style. At the same time, I am a fan of great stories, and this movie only feels like half of one. It's a lot to endure without a lot of payoff.

My Grade: B


  1. I think you are a little confused with your characters as Carey mulligan plays kathy and keira knightly plays ruth,
    I loved this film, definitely worth watching.

  2. Corrected. Thanks for the heads-up!