Among monster movies, is there a sub-subgenre as scare-free as the werewolf movie? Even the acknowledged classic lycanthrope films tend to be light on frights. Instead, they tend to focus on giving their tortured wolf-men (and women) a sense of humanity to counteract their animal urges while generating the audience’s sympathy. It also doesn’t help that wolves aren’t especially scary (unless you happen to run into one in real life). Sean Ellis’ Eight for Silver attempts to rectify this problem by overhauling the werewolf design to the point where it barely resembles the creature. His film is certainly chilling and elegantly made, but he sets up themes that are abandoned along the way in favor of violence and gore.
The film opens in the trenches of World War I, where Captain Edward Laurent leads a group of British soldiers out of trenches seething with mustard gas into the fire of a German machine gun. He’s struck down and dies on the operating table after a surgeon removes three bullets — along with a curious silver bullet that he notices can’t be from the German artillery. Morbidly, the silver bullet removed from his abdomen is mailed back to his family with his personal possessions. The film then jumps back 35 years to when Edward was just a boy on a country estate. It’s part of a massive area owned by his father Seamus (Alistair Petrie), who has multiple families farming the property for him. But a caravan of gypsies has rolled onto the land, claiming that it belongs to them. There are documents verifying their ownership going back decades, but Seamus can’t imagine parting with it, so he and the other men running the estate attack the gypsies. After a scene of shocking brutality, they bury what’s left of the gypsies, along with a curse cast against Seamus’ family by a dying matriarch.
Seamus’ children know nothing of the massacre, yet they and other children in the area begin having the same nightmares about the field planted with corpses. The children are the first to pay the price for Seamus’ transgressions, with one boy gruesomely killed and Edward injured before he disappears. Enter John McBride (Boyd Holbrook), a pathologist who just happens to be in the area in search of gypsies. He doesn’t find them, but he has at least an idea about what plague has befallen the village. In contemporary echoes, his relatively sound advice is ignored by Seamus and the village elders, all of whom are trying to hide their terrible misdeeds.
Ellis, who wrote, directed, produced, and lensed Eight for Silver, takes his time before introducing his version of the werewolf, and it’s even longer before we get a substantial look at it. The beast looks more like an extraterrestrial than a wolf, but it’s a welcome and unexpected change that verges on Cronenbergian body horror. The film also boasts a strong, understated performance from Holbrook, but the people of the village are anonymous. Seamus has shown himself capable of great evil, but we never get a glimpse into what drives him, and a brief turn toward self-awareness seems forced. Ellis hints at the dynamics between the peasants and the village elders just as the bodies start to pile up, but he leaves that behind once the werewolf has been seen. Whether or not the curse has been vanquished isn’t even settled, but not because Ellis means for it to be ambiguous. He just seems to have forgotten. Eight for Silver offers a tantalizing vision for how to revive the werewolf movie, but it’s lacking once you get past the great atmosphere.
CODA is a Refreshing Coming-of-Age Film That Tries Too Hard to Be a Crowd Pleaser
CODA is filled with compelling scenes about a hearing daughter born to Deaf parents, but it gets bogged down in sentimentality.
There are two films within CODA, an often-charming film about a hearing girl born into a family of deaf people. One movie is about their struggles, both hers as someone who is separated from her family by her ability to hear and their difficulties navigating a society that actively resists their efforts to get by. The other film is a treacly inspirational drama about a high schooler beating the odds to pursue a singing career, despite not coming from the sort of place where people tend to do that. One half is tethered to reality and is responsible for CODA’s emotional core, while the other feels pasted on and half-baked, a necessary gesture towards commercial necessity.
CODA (short for “child of deaf adults”) stars Emilia Jones as Ruby Rossi, who spends most of her time outside of high school on her family’s fishing boat off the shores of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Her father, Frank (a hilarious Troy Kotsur), and her brother Leo (Daniel Durant) work with her, while her mother (Oscar winner Marlee Matlin) stays back onshore and handles the books. All three are deaf, while Ruby can hear just fine. As such, she’s an essential part of family operations. She has to be on the boat with the men to respond to any radio calls or to help them negotiate fish prices with greedy middlemen, and later she’ll have to serve as a translator when her family tries to start its own co-op.
The film bestows a documentary immediacy on Ruby’s relationship with her family, and the most compelling scenes are when she’s with her parents, either sparring or giving in to Kotsur and Matlin’s impressive comic skills. They don’t seem like they’re mugging for the camera but rather capturing the spirit of those hilarious cousins everyone seems to have. When things get serious, as when Ruby berates her parents for the way they’ve become reliant on her and never planned for her possible departure, it feels as if we’re getting a glimpse into a real family’s arguments. Ruby’s also a talented singer, and she’s often launching into song when she’s alone, or at least when she’s with her family members, who can’t hear her and therefore won’t embarrass her. Long sections are played out in silence as Ruby converses with her family in American Sign Language, her first language. (English is what she uses to get by when she’s not at home.) The writer and director, Siân Heder, let these scenes play out leisurely to give a nicely developed portrait of how the quartet relying on each other.
There could have been a great drama about a hearing girl and her family and their struggles keeping their fishing business afloat, but Heder also welds another story about Ruby’s singing aspirations that threatens to sink CODA. She joins her high school’s elective choir on a lark, where her teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), spots her vocal talents and pushes her to audition for a prestigious music school. But focusing on her singing means spending less time on the fishing boat, which leaves her brother and father without their anchor and in serious legal jeopardy after accidentally running afoul of the Coast Guard. It won’t surprise anyone watching the film that everything is wrapped up at the end in a tear-jerking inspirational finale, but it feels like a betrayal of the film CODA initially seems to be. Part of that is likely a problem of the source, as it’s a remake of the French film La Famille Bélier, which follows the same basic storyline, except the family are farmers instead of fishermen. The soapy scenes about Ruby’s musical aspirations feel more like an episode of This Is Us, and Derbez is so over-the-top that he seems to be acting in a different movie. That’s sort of his M.O., but it’s disappointing that Heder couldn’t rein him in.
There are still enough great low-key scenes of Ruby and her family to make CODA worthwhile, but the need to turn it into a crowd-pleaser robs it of much of its power. Still, it’s a great showcase for Jones, who is electrifying in the lead role, and Kotsur and Matlin shine every second they’re on screen. It’s just a shame they’re in a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be.
Editor’s Note: This review was originally published on January 29, 2021, as part of our coverage of the Sundance Film Festival.
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