29 July 2011

At the Cinema: Last Night

Last Night (Massy Tadjedin/2010) USA/90mins. *****

Last Night sees love as a many splintered thing. The usual rough falls and furtive heights are carefully detailed, but never conveyed as something to be simplistically dwelt upon. This type of curious drama is a tried and tested cinematic arena, sure, but new angles and fresh avenues can still be opened up on screen for yet another film tackling the infinite possibilities aroused by love, lust and the question of fidelity. The four central lust-struck wanderers here certainly haven’t been beaten with the ugly stick, nor do they want for much materially, but inside (their four walls, their own brittle hearts) they pine for something more, something else.

One relationship gets analysed by its two participants; four searching souls make up the film’s cast. Joanna and Michael Reed (Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington) are a possibly, probably happily married Manhattan couple who both succumb to emotional and/or sexual temptations – of the mind and/or the flesh – across one night when Michael goes on a business trip to Philadelphia: he is with work colleague Laura (Eva Mendes); she bumps into old flame Alex (Guillaume Canet). We see them together, then apart, and then with others – the lustful bags of flesh which dominate their uncertain minds.

In an argument (before he goes off, but after she suspects something unsavoury is possibly afoot) Joanna abruptly demands Michael look at her directly after she asks a probing, loaded question as to his whereabouts. It’s a universally particular trait familiar to anyone with any experience of the construction of relationships (or even to anyone savvy enough to second-guess any meaning behind a successful screen depiction of relationships). This is suggestive of her intuitive yet easily suspicious nature: can she know whether he’s lying or not from the way he reacts facially? Knightley is either creatively adlibbing or interpreting the script with precise, knowing nuance. The actors understand the (il)logic within the desperate need to verbalise suspicions, and the lack of surety an answer might provide.

Tadjedin’s direction observes both actors’ faces. She unobtrusively switches perspectives when she needs to – and in an inquisitive way that posits both characters as either possible liars or victims of love’s hazy, messy toil. This kind of detail is vital to the way Last Night succeeds as a measured yet scrutinising exploration of the ins and outs of marriage. Pregnant pauses and half-started or -finished sentences both reveal a great deal about the tangles of suspicion, they mine deep into what a couple experiences after the thrill of fresh togetherness has evaporated.

Every creative attribute works to the film’s advantage. The evocative and uncharacteristically pared down score by Clint Mansell (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream) expertly underlines the film’s visual drama; Peter Deming’s (Mulholland Dr., Married Life) photography gives expensive shimmer to the high-end locations, but adds a bleak blanket of light to the early-hours NY streets like no one else in the last five years. Similarly, Susan E. Morse (Woody Allen’s one-time long-time go-to editor) shapes the city with a brisk, fuss-free tenor, and despite her certain geographical familiarity, she still exerts freshness and vigour in her cutting. (God knows why she hasn’t been asked to work on an Allen film in quite some time.) On screen, Knightley is fully, confidently at ease with the light meet-ups and the fraught drama - and Canet, alongside her, adds his own brand of smooth charm. It’s refreshing to see Worthington embrace an intricate character study again – long after he did similar work in Somersault and so soon after his triple dull thud of Terminator: Salvation, Avatar and Clash of the Titans. But Mendes, in the most unassuming role, is quietly revelatory. She makes her limited time onscreen count in subtly moving ways.

Last Night understands what a night away, a night in the city, might mean to people who question their possibly shaky positions in regard to love and loss. It understands the simple and relevant things of human drama. To some it might have the appearance of an advertisement for an unfeasibly expensive lifestyle product. But just because the surroundings are luxurious doesn’t necessarily mean that the emotional carnage wreaked is less or insignificant. The quartet here subtly and convincingly excavate their four corners of relationship desire and damage. Tadjedin’s film rests or falls on their interpretation. It's cheering that not only they, but the crew of talented filmmakers behind them, get it right.


  1. I already said I wasn't a big fan of this, but your words are illuminating (I like the review). I will say that I think the film is beautifully mounted, sometimes I find that contemporary films don't take as much pains to look as nice as periods do and this one does look good. Tadjedin has her moments where she's surprisingly intuitive (for example, I'd say the last twenty minutes are much better than the first) but overall it leaves me a with an awkward feeling.

  2. Thank you, Andrew. Yes, I remember we chatted about it. I must say, it was a film that I liked from the start, but it took hold more after it began to really grow on me as time went on; over the remainder of the week that I saw it it played on my mind a fair bit. Some scenes are really intuitively played; I was more surprised on seeing those scenes a second time. Maybe it's a grower for some folks. I'd definitely like to see more love for Knightley and Mendes in it for sure.