Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Movie Review: Three Monkeys

Three Monkeys ***
Directed By:
Nuri Bilge Ceylon.
Written By: Ebru Ceylan & Nuri Bilge Ceylan & Ercan Kesal.
Starring: Yavuz Bingol (Eyüp), Hatice Aslan (Hacer), Rifat Sungar (Ismail), Ercan Kesal (Servet), Cafer Köse (Bayram), Gürkan Aydin (The Child).

Three Monkeys is essentially an old school film noir that takes itself a little too seriously. Had this movie been made in 1940s America, you could easily see the characters being played by Robert Mitchum, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson. It has a classic noir setup – a politician hits a man with his car and kills him, but to avoid scandal, convinces his driver to take the rap for him, promising a big payday upon being released from jail. While the driver is in jail, the politician and the driver’s wife start to have an affair – for him it’s just a fling, for her it’s deadly serious. The son of the driver finds out, and is angry, but too paralyzed by fear to really do anything about it.

The co-writer and director of the film is Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who previous films – Distant and Climates – were also deliberately paced dramas that were at once simple and yet quietly profound. Three Monkeys is his most “pulp-y” film to date, taking elements of classic film noir, and putting them in modern day Turkey. He uses his beautiful imagery to tell the story much more than the dialogue between the characters. Each shot is perfectly chosen and composed, and there are few movies this year with as many striking images as this one does. The film is constantly shrouded in darkness, and there always seems to something separating the characters – windows, doors, jail bars etc. These are people who are unable to communicate, but even if they could, it is doubtful they would have much of interest to say to each other. The reaction of all the men in the movie seems to be to lash out with violence.

The one woman in the film is Hacer (Hatice Aslan), married to the driver Eyup (Yavuz Bingol) and mother to Ismail (Rifat Sungar). At first, she seems to be a caring wife and mother to the two, but gradually it is revealed that she really is not. Why does she sleep with the politician? It’s not like he is good looking (he is past 50, bald and chubby), and he isn’t even a powerful politician – he loses the election he fears the “scandal” will derail even without it coming out. I think she does it because no one else really enters her world, and she is lonely and bored. This is essentially a four character drama – outsiders rarely come into the picture, and when they do, they don’t really interact. The politician treats her kindly, which is more than you can say for her husband, who is gruff and uncaring, or her son, who is sullen and withdrawn. She cheats on her with the politician because there are not any other options.

The key relationships in the movie are deal are the three men with her, not between each other. Eyup and Ismail don’t really talk very much, and when they do, it’s mainly so that Eyup can yell at Ismail for being a screw-up, who cannot get into college and pays way too much for a car. Eyup and Servet, the politician, have a more typical employer-employee relationship, where Servet treats Eyup like his servant, and doesn’t think twice about betraying him with his wife, and tries to buy his silence by belittling him. Ismail doesn’t seem to talk to anyone.

But at different points in the movie all three of these men will lash out at Hacer. First, it’s Ismail, who comes home early one and hears noises coming from his mother’s bedroom. Looking through the keyhole, we can only guess what he sees – but it’s pretty clear that it’s Hacer and Servet in there. Instead of confronting them, he runs away, and comes home only after Servet has left. Ismail questions Hacer, letting herself dig herself deeper with lies, before he confronts her with what he knows (of course, not by coming out directly with it, but implying it). But even then, Ismail cannot bring himself to fully get angry – he gives her a half hearted slap, but doesn’t do anything else.

Eyup is scarier. He knows something is going on, and when Hacer’s cell phone rings one day, he answers it, and realizes that it’s his boss on the other end, saying things that he shouldn’t be saying to his wife. Like Ismail, Eyup only passively aggressively challenges Hacer on her betrayal, until he grows violent. Unlike Ismail, Eyup’s violence is much stronger, and scarier. In a scene that wanders back and forth between eroticism and violence, Eyup challenges Hacer on what she has done.

Finally, in the film’s most painful scene, Servet confronts Hacer himself. Is she trying to screw up both of their lives? Why does she keep calling and her hanging around his house? This is a scene that is least violent, because Servet never strikes Hacer, but the most emotionally painful, as Hacer throws herself at him, only to be repeatedly rejected.

The ending of Three Monkeys doesn’t really solve anything. It’s as if the entire movie is a circle, and at the end, we are only expanding the characters and the violence involved, not resolving the inner conflicts that led to them in the first place. The characters are just as screwed up – just as violent and guilty – at the end of the movie as they are at the beginning.

If there is a problem with Three Monkeys, and there is, it’s that Ceylan takes the material a little too seriously. Yes, adultery, abuse and murder are serious subjects, but Ceylan has essentially made an old school film noir, but has raised the issues to tragic proportions, which it didn’t really need. Film noir is always a nightmare – where normal people get in over their heads with sex, violence and murder – but Ceylan tries to make it all a little too real. Three Monkeys is a gorgeous film, and a quietly involving one. If it isn’t the masterwork it could have been we forgive the film its flaws because it is still quietly engrossing.

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