There’s a disturbing resignation to the way Kris, a 14-year-old white girl from a run-down Houston suburb, poses the question to a cop who’s picked her up for trashing a neighbor’s house. Her mother is already in jail and her grandmother, dirt poor and overtaxed in the best of times, lacks the health and the resource to look after her and her little sister. Kris’ academic prospects are so dire that her English teacher doesn’t even bother to call her out in class for watching a video on her phone. “I saw you, Kris,” the teacher says. “I’m just to the point where I don’t care anymore.”
Getting the audience to care is a challenge, too, though the two first-timers responsible for Bull, director Annie Silverstein and her lead actress, Amber Havard, are up to the task. Despite the sentimental outlines of the story, which ultimately centers on the redemptive relationship between Kris and an aging African-American bull rider, don’t actively court sympathy for her. They want to make her persuasive first, so they emphasize the deflating apathy of a girl who doesn’t believe her future will be any different than her mother’s. Kris doesn’t want to take even the minimal steps to keep herself out of trouble. She just wants to get it over with.
There are several recent points of comparison for Bull, like the Heartland drift of a traveling magazine sellers in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, the lost children in the shadows of Disney World in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, or the teenage girl fighting her way through meth country in Winter’s Bone. Bull could use more of the expressive spark of those great films — it’s humble and low-key to a fault — but it share with them a keen sense of what it’s like to grow up poor in America, and how even young children become aware of their narrowed options. What’s different about Kris is that she doesn’t have the will to fight for anything better, at least not at first.
We are still figuring out how to make compelling films about 21st-century geopolitics. The stakes in this arena have never been higher, but they’ve also never been less visually exciting. Most unscrupulous maneuvers these days occur not in secret parking-structure meetings or hotel rooms, but behind computer screens, where the good people can frown while squinting at emails and .wav files.
The latest attempt to make such screens come alive isOfficial Secrets, a new biopic of Iraq War whistleblower Katharine Gun. In 2003, the British intelligence worker leaked a memo from the (American) National Security Agency asking her office to help arm-twist holdout countries in the United Nations run-up vote to authorize the war. By calling up intelligence forces to dig up dirt on allies, Gun believed the US was conspiring to launch an illegal and dangerous war by disreputable means. But when she leaked the memo, all hell broke loose, and she was put on trial for violating the U.K.’s tellingly named Official Secrets Act. This is good news for the drama based on Gun’s life, because it eventually gets her out of her cubicle and into the courtroom, where she stands inside a glass box that’s a lot more exciting to look at.
Gun is played by Keira Knightley, standing in principle while drowning in sweater sleeves. She comes onboard the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British equivalent of the NSA, as a low-level language analyst, seemingly kept in the dark as to the organization’s true nature. And Knightley plays Gun as relatable and down-to-earth, not a Snowden-type figure who was going in looking to stir up trouble.
In the run-up to the offending email, we see her at home in Cheltenham grinding her teeth as Tony Blair and George W. Bush make their televised case for going to war. “Yelling at the TV isn’t going to make any difference,” Gun’s husband Yasar (Adam Bakri) tells her, and so she takes that to heart, utilizing a network of anti-war activists to get the NSA’s memo into the hands ofObserverreporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith, trying out the cynical-journalist routine on his boyishThe Crownface).
Director Gavin Hood is no stranger to this kind of material, having already tackled extrajudicial intelligence schemes in his 2007 dramaRenditionand modern-day warfare in the 2015 drone thrillerEye in the Sky. AndOfficial Secretsdoesn’t shy away from placing the Iraq War under the harsh light of history, emphasizing the underhanded machinations both U.S. and U.K. intelligence used to secure public approval for their actions. In itsObserverscenes, the film also gets to critique the media’s failures in covering Iraq in a way that feels specific to the narrative — the left-of-center paper had formally endorsed the war before landing Gun’s scoop, so editors have shouting matches in the newsroom over whether they’re just carrying water for Blair and Bush.
But what Hood, and his co-writers Gregory and Sara Bernstein are actually building to is something far more ambitious and damning: putting the war itself on trial. They can do this with Gun’s story because her legal team, headed by Ralph Fiennes, decides that their best strategy is to demonstrate she was acting out of necessity, to stop an illegal war — thereby trumping the British law forbidding the sharing of government secrets. If you know Gun’s story, it won’t surprise you that it ends in something of an anticlimax. But it’s also where the film truly takes flight, as Hood is able to import the language of world affairs into the mechanics of a good courtroom drama (or about half of one, anyway).
And on the side is an attempt at a straightforward espionage thriller, though the material here is a bit thin and sometimes feels like we’re just biding time while the film can run its two-hour length. There’s a great fuss made over the identity of a mysterious NSA figure with the very Keyser Söze-esque name of “Frank Koza” (that part is real), and the familiar scenes where Gun, out in public, begins to believe she is being watched. But there’s not enough effort made to spice up the inherent drabness of a story that takes place mostly in offices. When minor characters leave the country, it’s a rare moment for some fresh air—though one reporter’s trip to Washington, D.C. mostly just results in a few tense phone calls.
As the Iraq War recedes into our rear-view mirror and our current news cycle spins blindly from one world crisis to another, films likeOfficial Secrets, bland as they may seem, will serve as crucial efforts to keep our past mistakes in our minds. And although 2003 may not seem like that long ago, this movie feels like a period setting in at least one respect: Someone like Gun still cares about trying to separate legal acts from illegal ones, and truth from lies.
Richard Billingham grew up in a squalid tenement home in Thatcher-era Britain, in a region outside Birmingham commonly referred to as the Black Country. And true to its name, his upbringing was the blackest of circumstances. Billingham and his younger brother Jason wrestled with an alcoholic, withdrawn father and a violent, short-tempered mother, both habitually unemployed: a household constantly perched on the edge of chaos.
For years Billingham has examined the scenes of his childhood in acclaimed photography, documentary film, and other projects, but now he takes us even further into his world with his first narrative feature, the melancholic and unsparing drama Ray & Liz. The film is filled with deep pain and mesmerizing details of what it’s like to grow up in poverty and neglect, focusing less on the hardships the family faced than on how they passed the time.
For the adults, that means filling their days with sleeping and smoking, though the heavily tattooed Liz (the fantastic Ella Smith) also cherishes her jigsaw puzzles, and the sullen Ray (Justin Salinger) his unmarked plastic bottles of murky brown homebrew. One thing they barely concern themselves with is the well-being of their children, particularly Jason, who’s put in danger at multiple stages of his life. We often say art “cuts close to the bone,” but in its depiction of clinking liquor bottles and drawers of unopened rent notices soaked in dog urine, Ray & Liz slices clean through that bone.
Shot on film to better capture the setting’s grimey palette, the movie is told in standalone episodes lifted directly from the writer-director’s own memory, although Richard himself barely factors into them. In an early passage, Jason is a toddler left in the care of an uncle to disastrous ends; later, a school-aged Jason (Joshua Millard-Lloyd) desperate to escape his home life will spend a winter night alone in a garden shed. These scenes are bookended by glimpses of Ray in his old age (Patrick Romer), lying alone in his filthy bedroom for days on end, pouring himself bottomless glasses of that homebrew. “What day is it?” he yells down to Liz in the street, like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.
Though it’s set in the late 20th century, Ray & Liz feels like a throwback to a postwar British genre: the “kitchen sink drama,” in which playwrights and filmmakers would tackle the class struggle from every conceivable angle. Billingham tries to limit this story to his own memories, stripping context from his parents’ misfortunes like the wallpaper stripped from his flat’s stuffy beige corridors: we don’t know how they got this way or whether they’re trying to make things better. But the more the film boxes us into its specific mindset, the more we register when the outside world intrudes in the form of social services come to check on the kids, or an observer of the family who knows exactly how to manipulate their worst tendencies to his own ends.
As we grow to understand these characters and their place in the universe, Billingham cuts to close-ups of the dogs, rats, snails, flies, and various other creatures who inhabit this space with them. In this way a spiritual connection is formed between the humans stamped out of their own society and the animals who prowl the edges with them. Liz is quick to raise a fist to her own blood, as though a more orderly life were something she could threaten into existence, but later we see her gently pushing a rabbit through the park in a baby stroller, and we reflect on how easy it can be to misdirect even the most basic feelings of kindness. Through her mannerisms, her impulsive anger at her family that gives way to a resigned calm once she finds a distraction, Smith makes Liz into a tragic figure without a firm grasp of time, responsibility, or even her own personhood.
For outsiders to Billingham’s life (meaning, er, all of us), there’s a twinge of sadism to the film. It takes minutes of screentime for a man to knock back drink after drink, sealing this family’s fate in the process, and the natural question is: Why watch this? After all, in the director’s original photography series, Ray’s a Laugh, the frank visual compositions of his father’s home life did all the narrative work. You could look at his shirtless body, slumped over on a couch as he ate a TV dinner with the dog curled up next to him, and you’d understand a lot already. But this transition into the moving image does give us a better feel for Ray and Liz as people, not just as talking points for welfare debates. We see how easy it was for them to withdraw from a world that cut them no breaks; the occasional flashes of pride they insisted on holding; and their too-late realization that an aimless life is no kind of life at all. Billingham has used his art career to grant dignity to his folks, to tell us that they were here. Maybe that’s enough.