Samson and Delilah
Written and Directed by Warwick Thornton
Starring Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson

I love great dialogue as much as the next critic, but it seems to me that American movies have gotten awfully talky recently, as if too many filmmakers have simply forgotten that age-old aphorism about one image being worth a thousand pithy exchanges.  That’s especially true with the recent spate of movie romances—both of the comic and dramatic variety—where the couple that’s meant to be falling in love or that’s already in love talks endlessly at each other about their feelings without ever seeming to share one quiet moment of genuine affection.  (I suppose I have to blame my all-time favorite movie, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, for that—Alvy and Annie do talk up a storm in that film, but their conversations are somehow just as intimate and affectionate as silence would be.)

The cacophony of words that deafens so many American love stories seems even more pronounced after watching the Australian import Samson and Delilah, where the central romance between the two title characters convincingly plays out in almost complete silence.  It’s not like they have much to talk about; the youngest residents of their remote Aboriginal community—which consists solely of a few dilapidated houses resting alongside a patchy stretch of dirt road—Samson (Rowan McNarama) and Delilah (Marissa Gibson) lead lives of relative isolation.  He rooms with his older brother, who ignores him in favor of jamming with his friends on the front porch, while she looks after her elderly, infirm grandmother, who teases her endlessly about her obvious (though again, silent) interest in the quiet boy down the street.

When her guardian passes away in the night, Delilah is blamed for neglecting her and subsequently beaten by two of the community’s older women.  Samson—who, in a fit of anger, attacks brother and takes some punishment of his own—steals a car and drives them both to a larger town, where they join the other drifters living on the streets, shoplifting food from grocery stores and begging for spare change.  Their relationship is repeatedly tested by a series of unfortunate events, including Delilah’s brief, but frightening abduction by a group of racist joyriders and Samson’s severe inhalant abuse.  (He’s never without a magic marker or a water bottle filled with gasoline to get high off of.)  Truth be told, the litany of abuses that befall them becomes too excessive after awhile.  It’s as if the filmmakers mistakenly think that the only way the audience can sympathize with these characters is to watch them suffer.  But McNamara and Gibson—neither of whom have any previous acting experience—are such compelling camera subjects, they seize our attention and compassion right away.  If anything, the movie’s aggressive attempts to heap misfortune on these characters come close to diluting the impact of the performers’ natural screen presences.

Samson and Delilah marks the feature narrative debut of Warwick Thornton, who has previously dabbled in television, short films and documentaries.  His background in the latter form is apparent in the observational style he employs here.  Thornton uses close-ups sparingly, more often placing the characters at the center of medium and wide shots so that viewers are always aware of the environment around them, from the empty desolation of their Outback community to the impersonal bustle of the big city.  This approach also emphasizes how disconnected Samson and Delilah are from the world at large.  Neglected, ignored and abused, it’s no wonder they come to depend on each other for some sort of comfort.  Samson and Delilah would be a more powerful film overall had Thornton shown more restraint in the second half, but throughout McNamara and Gibson succeed at portraying a couple whose bond is strong enough to not require words.

Samson and Delilah opens in theaters in New York tomorrow.  Visit the official website for more details.


Quick Takes:

Directed by Simone Bitton

It can’t have been easy to make a purely objective documentary about Rachel Corrie, the American protester who was killed in the Gaza Strip in 2003 while protesting the destruction of Palestinian homes by Israeli demolition crews.  For starters, the story has gotten bigger than her—betraying the slightest hint of opinion can immediately get you labeled as a Palestinian sympathizer or Zionist zealot.  Also complicating matters is the fact that the exact circumstances surrounding her death are still in dispute, with her friends and family maintaining that she was crushed beneath the wheels of an Israeli bulldozer, while that country’s government insisting that they aren’t directly at fault.  Pointing the finger too obviously at one side or the other would make it easy to marginalize the film and filmmaker as propaganda.  So it’s impressive that documentarian Simone Bitton manages to remain neutral for so much of her new film about the Corrie case, simply titled Rachel.  Securing access to a number of people directly involved in the incident—from Corrie’s fellow protestors to the coroner that performed her autopsy—Bitton allows each of them to offer their version of events, cutting between their various testimonies to personal photos and security video footage taken on the day in question.  As a blow-by-blow account of the hours leading up to and immediately following her death, Rachel is a strong work of investigative journalism.  But Bitton can’t resist tipping her hand to where her sympathies lie in other ways, like having Corrie’s parents read excerpts from their daughter’s personal journal or closing the movie with an angry rap performed by one of her friends that baldly lays the blame on Israel.  (Granted, some of the Israeli officials interviewed do their case little favor; the coroner in particular struggles to justify his report claiming that a bulldozer couldn’t have caused the wounds on Corrie’s body.)  These cracks in her objectivity are understandable—after all, you can’t spend this much time exploring a person’s life and not be left with strong feelings about him or her one way or the other—but they’re also a little disappointing considering how nuanced the rest of the film is.

Directed by John Curran
Written by Angus MacLachlan
Starring Robert De Niro, Edward Norton and Milla Jovovich

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Robert De Niro actually try to give a real performance in a film, so for that reason alone, Stone is almost worth the price of admission.  The operative word here though, is “almost.”  Because for all the firepower De Niro brings to his role, screenwriter Angus MacLachlan and John Curran let him down at almost every turn.  An odd combination of prison movie and quasi-religious morality play, the film depicts the tumultuous relationship between a veteran parole officer (De Niro), a brash prisoner (Edward Norton) and the inmate’s lusty wife (Milla Jovovich) who will do anything free her man…anything up to and including sleeping with the aforementioned parole officer to secure her hubby’s release.  Watching Stone, I can honestly say that I was never sure where the movie was going to go next; then again, I kept expecting it to at least go somewhere interesting.  Sadly, it really doesn’t.  The face-offs between Norton and De Niro carry some charge, but Jovovich’s character makes little sense, as does the supposed spiritual awakening that Norton experiences courtesy of a strange New Age religion.  De Niro, on the other hand, delivers a fully fleshed out portrayal of a supposedly devout man who gives into temptation as soon as it presents itself.  Devoted fans of the actor might find Stone worth watching simply to witness De Niro shrug off the lethargy that plagued him for much of the last decade.  Everyone else needn’t bother.

Rachel and Stone are currently playing in limited release.