This Week's Review: Birth of a Nation and The Girl on the Train

I saw two films on Saturday, neither of which was perfect.  Both were highly anticipated and may receive one or more Oscar nominations.

The first film was an adaption of Paula Hawkins’s extremely popular novel, The Girl on the Train.  I read the book several months ago and was impressed.  The film is very good, but too many scenes are shockingly violent and prurient.  The influence of some Hitchcock films, particularly Rear Window, is very pronounced; there is also strong influence from Agatha Christie’s various mysteries about murder on or observed from trains.

The film tries to imitate the intricate series of flashbacks Hawkins used in the novel; the convoluted structure is exacerbated by the extremely unreliability of Rachel, the narrator, who is descending into the final stages of alcoholism.  Emily Blunt does a good job as Rachel and is touted as a probable Oscar nominee; I did not recognize other members of the cast

All in all, this is a good film of a better novel, but do be warned.   Twenty years ago, the rating would have been NC-17, not R.

The second film was The Birth of a Nation.   The title is, of course, is borrowed from D. W. Griffith’s silent 1915 epic about the Civil War and Reconstruction.  That film remains controversial because of its racist content; the original novel, Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, is the epitome of hate.  Nate Perry’s film is set several years before the Civil War and deals with the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner.  There are several extremely violent scenes.

The early enthusiasm for the film has slackened terribly after news about Perry’s past came to light.  I often skip films directed by those with unsavory reputations; e.g., Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and Mel Gibson, but I did decide to see this film.  I was impressed with Perry as a director, writer, and star, but the film does not anything to our knowledge of the horrors of the slave era; Twelve Years a Slave may prove to be a better film.

Whether Perry will be able to rehabilitate his reputation is not clear; he certainly did well with his Red-Tails.  There are still several aspects of slavery that need to be brought to our attention and he has the talent to do that.  In the meantime, I will have to make a similarly difficult decision about Mel Gibson’s forthcoming Hacksaw Ridge, a film  about a conscientious objector in World War II.