Instinct

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


Instinct

directed by Jon Turtletaub

Hopkins’ Macho Misfire

photo courtesy of Wiki

In Instinct, 62-year-old Anthony Hopkins plays an ape expert named Ethan Powell, who lived among the mountain gorillas of Rwanda for several years until he went berserk and murdered two Rwandan soldiers for reasons unknown. Now he’s incarcerated in the psycho wing of a maximum security penitentiary, where he remains mute by choice and mostly keeps to himself, except when he’s punching the living hell out of bully-boy inmates and sadistic guards who pick on the weaker prisoners.


Which is a long way of saying that Hopkins is playing Sean Connery’s part in—well, pretty much any Connery picture made after The Untouchables. Like Connery in The Rock, Powell is a brooding slyboots who’s old enough to have a thirtysomething daughter (Maura Tierney) but still tough and sexy and charming, with cascading ivory hair extensions hiding his magnetic eyes. He doesn’t get laid in this film, but boy, you know he could if he felt like it. He’s a fount of wisdom for the young, a natural leader, and he can whip six or seven burly guys in their 20s without getting winded. In the first 15 minutes of Instinct, he escapes a posse of G-men at Miami International Airport and leads them on a foot chase that ends in a mad melee near the ticket counter, with Ethan slinging young cops around like sacks of laundry while bellowing like the Hulk passing a kidney stone. Aghast travelers on the sidelines flinch, perhaps from the overpowering smell of testosterone.


The filmmakers should have gone all the way and had Hopkins beat the cops to death with his penis.


I don’t know about you, but I’ve had just about enough of movies about hale and hearty guys in their 50s and 60s who show the young turks how it’s done. A romance between a gorgeous 25-year-old and a still-sexy senior, an action flick starring a man older than Gary Cooper when he died, a macho wilderness adventure about an old rich man with a sexy young wife who can still kill a grizzly with a pocket knife lashed to a stick—individually, these films can be entertaining, even inspiring in a low-down, goofy way. But taken cumulatively, they seem a tad pathetic. Cary Grant gracefully bowed out of young-man roles after he hit 60, and Charlton Heston, Gregory Peck and John Wayne tempered their heroism with frank admissions of diminished vitality. It’s hard to shake the suspicion that modern silverback superstars like Hopkins and Connery (and Harrison Ford and Morgan Freeman, who are getting up there) are being youthed-up to please a wafer-thin slice of the demographic pie: middle-aged male entertainment industry execs who are looking Death square in the face for the first time and desperately wishing they could punch it in the nose and head off to the spa for a relaxing aromatherapy session with their trophy wives. When a pushing-70 Clint Eastwood acts the hero while admitting world-weariness and complaining of muscle fatigue or a head cold, Hollywood cliche melds with truth, and the result is witty and touching. But when Hopkins makes like the Tasmanian Devil in Instinct, or Connery dangles from a rope with one hand while machine-gunning foes with the other, it’s emotional Viagra.


Directed by Jon Turtletaub and written by Gerald Dipego—the credits say the script was ”inspired by” a novel called Ishmael, which is always a bad sign—Instinct is a crazy quilt of homages. There’s a little bit of The Prince of Tides in the mix, with Ethan remaining stubbornly mute during the first part of the movie and gradually opening up to his psychiatrist, Theo Caulder (Cuba Gooding Jr., so earnest and driven he makes Tom Cruise look like a stoic lump). There’s quite a bit of Gorillas in the Mist, particularly in the inevitable flashbacks that show Ethan venturing deep into ‘rilla country and living silently among them. There are also flashes of Awakenings, with the careerist doctor being “awakened” after treating a singularly disturbed patient. And there are hints of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with Ethan and Theo joining forces to break the calcified back of the hospital’s bureaucracy, end prison guard brutality and obtain decent treatment for the other inmates. It’s hooey from frame one.


But did it have to be such somber hooey? And did the script have to be so lumpy and unfocused? As always, given the allegedly “collaborative” nature of Hollywood filmmaking, I’m reluctant to blame the writer; Instinct shows serious signs of tampering, by who I’m not sure.


Mistake number one is the ungainly shape of the narrative, which arbitrarily keeps Hopkins silent for the first 40 minutes while his costar bangs his figurative head against the wall figuring out how on Earth to convince the older man to speak. When Ethan finally does speak, it becomes clear that his muteness was arbitrary—supposedly a statement against the evilness of industrialized society, but really just a cheap mystery-building gimmick. Within a scene or two, he’s chattering away like Anthony Hopkins on a talk show, pausing occasionally to humiliate the hell out of the young doctor in the name of teaching some sort of lesson. There’s also a subplot about the feud between Ethan and his daughter, and another subplot about a vicious prison guard (John Ashton) who abuses the weakest of the inmates and Theo’s principled attempts to undermine him. All this stuff might have been worth watching if treated separately in another film, but here it serves as an irritating distraction from the central mystery of what happened to Ethan in Rwanda.


Which brings us to mistake number two: the flashback structure. I once again restate my objection to films where a couple of people slowly get to know each other so that the first person ultimately can tell a very interesting and very important story to the second, thereby enriching the second person’s emotionally impoverished life. Sometimes these framing devices work, as in Saving Private Ryan and The Princess Bride, but not without raising a host of valid objections in the process. And when the framing device is the movie, as in Instinct and the recent Irish melodrama This Is My Father, the audience asks the inevitable question: If the story told in flashback is so important and transformative, why didn’t the movie just tell that story instead of wasting our time with the buildup? There’s a perverse narcissism to Hollywood’s increasing reliance on flashback structures: They allow filmmakers to pat themselves on the back for their ability to move people; the congratulation takes the form of a framing device in which fictional characters are deeply moved by having been told a story. It’s the film’s way of applauding itself so you don’t have to.


What’s especially galling is that the story told in flashback is usually more moving, or at least looks more interesting, than the framing narrative that encloses it. The flashback sequences in Instinct are a perfect illustration of this phenomenon. They are genuinely magical. Told almost without dialogue—just limited voiceover narration from Hopkins—the scenes show Ethan, a slightly arrogant loner, finding peace and harmony among the great silverback gorillas. You just know from his easy interaction with them that he’s a decent person, not the vicious murderer described by authorities—he’s the hero, for crying out loud, how could it be otherwise? But the point of these scenes is not to confirm the script’s predictability; the point is to show a bond developing between a human being and an allegedly less complex relative on the evolutionary ladder. Special-effects wizard Stan Winston, who created the primate suits for Gorillas in the Mist, repeats the feat here to even more convincing effect, and he’s helped mightily by Turtletaub’s sensitive direction and Hopkins’ expert reactions. In the framing sequences, Hopkins is mostly leaning on his movie star mystique, but in the flashbacks he’s truly acting—mostly with his eyes, but also, when threatened by an alpha male gorilla, with slumped shoulders and a respectfully bowed head.


A little more modesty, coupled with storytelling common sense, might have resulted in a much better (or at least not as frequently incompetent) movie. As is, much of Instinct seems devoted to telling us over and over again what a stunningly wise, magnetic and tough fellow Ethan is. It’s unseemly: Like the worst of Connery’s movies, and like Clint Eastwood’s action pictures pre-Heartbreak Ridge, it plays like a multimillion-dollar infomercial for a great movie star who needs no such thing. A film like this strikes me as much more corrupt than The Phantom Menace: Where the latter is an ambitious but deeply flawed blockbuster made with childlike enthusiasm, Instinct, its jungle flashbacks aside, feels completely calculated. It’s an advertisement for its actors and itself—and a bad one.



Framed

Race matters: Speaking of Instinct, I’d love to see some of the critics who got on a high horse about the goofy pan-national alien characters in Phantom Menace expend a bit of moral capital targeting the ugly racist subtext in Turtletaub’s movie; it’s a hell of a lot more offensive than Jar Jar Binks’ fumble-tongued yammerings.


Cuba Gooding Jr., who won an Oscar playing a fully rounded modern black man with a functional marriage in Jerry Maguire, took a giant step backward playing Robin Williams’ grinning, buck-naked spirit guide in What Dreams May Come, and he degrades himself further in Instinct. He makes a supposedly race-blind supporting role into a clueless nonwhite suckup character, submitting to indignities here that Tom Cruise wouldn’t have stood for 13 years ago, and that Chris O’Donnell or Brendan Fraser wouldn’t stand for today. In one sequence, Hopkins grabs Gooding’s buppie shrink character in a headlock, mashes his tear-streaked face against a table and makes him write on a piece of paper the word that describes what the gorilla expert has “taken” from him. (The answer is, “illusions.” Deep, huh?) And in the big farewell scene at the end, Gooding blubbers like little Ricky Schroder at the end of The Champ; it might have been the director’s wrongheaded choice, or maybe Gooding is just one of those actors who get emotionally overwhelmed and can’t help squirting a few, but considering the cynical fantasyland nature of the movie, it’s weird and embarrassing. (Gooding also is permitted no romantic sparks with white female costar Tierney; big surprise there.)


Just as odious is the film’s refusal to acknowledge the racial land mines strewn throughout this script. Instinct is the kind of clueless Hollywood fantasy that pairs up a white scientist who killed two black men in Africa with a black American shrink, then cuts without comment from a flashback closeup of a gorilla to a closeup of Cuba Gooding’s face and seems to have no clue as to what that transition might mean. It’s just as offensive to suggest, as the script does, that the audience should be more moved by the plight of mountain gorillas in Rwanda than by the deaths of the two black Rwandan military men who were murdered by the old white hero.

 

Smoked out: June 9-22, Film Forum runs The Last Cigarette, an engaging and ultimately exasperating found-footage documentary about the rise and fall of smoking in Western civilization. Codirected by Kevin Rafferty (Feed) and Frank Keraudren, it’s a jaunty trip through a century’s worth of Hollywood clips, industrial and educational films and tv commercials (“Coughs due to smoking disappear!” promises a 1950s Philip Morris commercial). This stuff is cleverly intercut with excerpts from the 1994 congressional “hearings” on the dangers of smoking. I put the word “hearing” in quotes because that entire affair was ridiculous—a melding of amateur Perry Mason theatrics and neo-McCarthyist bullying that might have actually set the cause of tobacco regulation back a few years.


The central image in the movie is California Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, whose relentless badgering of subpoenaed tobacco company bigwigs actually managed to make these weasels seem sympathetic. In C-SPAN footage, perched behind that kangaroo-court table, Waxman looks like he died and went to weenie heaven; he and his equally pompous cronies seem oblivious to incontrovertible evidence that the tobacco industry is already systematically killing itself in the courts and the media and needs no help from the legislature. As framed by the filmmakers’ editing choices, Waxman is transformed from an opportunistic political hack into an uber-scold: He’s every killjoy whose pinch-lipped scorn encouraged otherwise reasonable people to keep on killing themselves in the name of principled resistance.


Rafferty and Keraudren take us through just about every imaginable aspect of the smoking controversy, from advertising and youth pandering to Hollywood glamorization and 16-mm antismoking propaganda movies in which wooden teen actors say things like, “If it’s so easy to quit, how come my dad can’t stop?” It gets a little tiresome after a while; you start to feel as though you’re seeing variations on the same argument replayed over and over with different images and music. But it’s fun all the same, and the use of Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack from Vertigo is inspired. Hitchcock’s film was about a self-destructive obsession with a dearly departed lover. As an ex-smoker who still lapses from time to time and savors each sweet puff, I sympathized.

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