In Hal Hartley's tender yet lacerating and darkly funny fable "No Such Thing," the director imagines that what supermarket tabloids say is true: A monster does indeed still roam the Earth. In this case, the Monster (Robert John Burke) lives in a ship wrecked off a tiny island but a stone's throw from a coastal village on the northernmost tip of Iceland. It's so remote and rugged an area that even on horseback it's possible to travel only so far; the rest of the journey must be made on foot.
The Monster has a human male's tall, rangy build, and for all his knurly, prognathous jaw, battered horns and leathery, reptilian skin, he is a handsome creature. An alcoholic insomniac, brilliant and foulmouthed, he has the stature of a dark protagonist of a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. In his seedy-elegant attire he is a romantic figure, as tormented by loneliness and isolation as Nosferatu the Vampire, and similarly cursed by immortality.
Having witnessed humanity evolve from pond scum, he has developed over the millennia an angry contempt for its inhumanity and longs only for the death that seems an impossibility. Meanwhile, in Manhattan, a callous, hard-driving producer (Helen Mirren) of a TV news show that is as sensational as she can make it has dispatched one of her journalists and his crew to check out the authenticity of the Monster, only to have them disappear. Beatrice (Sarah Polley), the timid, lowliest of aides to Mirren, dares to suggest that she be assigned to go searching for the missing men, for she is engaged to the reporter in the group. Against all odds the demure but resolute Beatrice prevails. Unexpected developments turn Beatrice into a major story herself before she even gets to Iceland.
In his highly original way Hartley gets a lot going on, and all of it looms with larger implications. Not surprisingly, the film develops a Beauty and the Beast motif, while the Boss represents a media concerned not only with gathering bad news but the absolute worst that can be dug up or manufactured.
Hartley suggests that we need monsters, that they are projections of the dark side of humanity, and he leads us to suspect that in a world without monsters humans will devour one another--especially at a time when, in unsemantic fashion, people are increasingly more inclined to accept reports about the world as the world itself. For all its underlying seriousness, "No Such Thing" effectively plays moments of exquisite tenderness, outrageous humor and scabrous satire against one another.
The film is at times too pokey and talky for its own good, but it is strongly sustained by the force of Hartley's idiosyncratic vision and a clutch of scintillating portrayals. Mirren is so steadfastly amusing in delineating the Boss in all her extremes with a perfectly straight face that she accomplishes the substantial task of making yet another skewering of media excesses seem fresh and provocative. Very much a monster herself, Mirren's Boss is balanced by Julie Christie's Dr. Anna, a Reykjavik physician, a woman of exceptional compassion and courage. They and Baltasar Kormakur, as a wildly eccentric scientific genius, lend extraordinary support to Polley and Burke, who gracefully embrace a wide range of emotions and levels of perception.
Not everyone, for sure, is going to be able or willing to go the distance in this ambitious but exceedingly offbeat epic, which is great-looking and has a sweeping romantic score by Hartley himself.
Those who can, however, may discover that the dark undertow in society and human nature Hartley uncovers here, along with humankind's finer impulses, has a lot in common with the filmmaker's initial explorations of the zanier side of life in blue-collar Long Island. "No Such Thing" attains the pathos and gossamer enchantment of the classic fairy tale it is at heart.
MPAA rating: R, for language and brief violence. Times guidelines: The language is blunt, the violence intense; complex adult themes.
'No Such Thing'
Sarah Polley ... Beatrice
Robert John Burke ... The Monster
Helen Mirren ... The Boss
Julie Christie ... Dr. Anna
Baltasar Kormakur ... Artaud
A United Artists Films presentation of an American Zoetrope production in association with the Icelandic Film Corp. and True Fiction Pictures. Writer-director-producer-composer Hal Hartley. Producers Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, Cecilia Kate Roque. Executive producers Francis Ford Coppola, Linda Reisman, Willi Baer. Cinematographer Michael Spiller. Editor Steve Hamilton. Costumes Helga I. Stefansdottir. Production designer Arni Pall Johannson. Art director Ed Chack. Set decorator Karen Wiesel. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
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