How do you solve a problem like David O. Russell?
You hire Tom McCarthy instead.
Wait. Actually, before we get to that, let’s backtrack a little bit.
(N.B. In the interests of those folk fortunate enough to not yet experience any or all of McCarthy’s movies I will avoid anything deeper than cursory plot discussion.)
Last Saturday night was a rare quiet one for me. It was just me with a beer or six for company, and I’d already watched Clerks 2, Phoenix, and All About My Mother, so I needed something special to cap this finely balanced marathon off. It couldn’t be a wildcard. I needed a safe bet. A director I could trust and — after the pop culture riffing of Clerks 2, the devastating noir drama of Phoenix, and the perfectly modulated Almodovarian histrionics and shifting allegiances of All About My Mother — a story that was fundamentally just about people. The answers came to me almost immediately: Tom McCarthy. Spotlight.
It’s a good movie. Like, really good. Just as good as Kristy says. An important film about an important subject, it was a deserving enough recipient of the Academy Award for Best Picture (even though those of us in the know that it wasn’t quite shiny and chrome enough to be the actual best movie released in 2015.)
IMDB will tell you that before he made Spotlight, Tom McCarthy wrote and directed four movies. Unfortunately IMDB doesn’t know what it’s talking about because one of those isn’t a movie. One of those is Adam Sandler’s The Cobbler. So let’s just ignore whatever diabolical photos Sandler happens to have of Tom McCarthy alongside his files on Terry Crews, Harvey Keitel, Will Forte, Danny Trejo, Steve Buscemi, Peter Dinklage, Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Jane Krakowski, Method Man, Dustin Hoffman, Maria Bello, Maya Rudolph, Tim Meadows, George Takei, and Ving Rhames that got him and the others involved in his cinematic bowel movements, and let’s move past that one.
Four Tom McCarthy movies it is.
The Station Agent (2003), The Visitor (2007), Win Win (2011), and Spotlight (2015).
In The Station Agent, Finn (Peter Dinklage), a lonely man with dwarfism and very high defensive walls has his only friend die. He leaves behind for him a small bit of property in rural New Jersey, to which Finn moves. Despite his desire for a solitary existence however, a trio of misfits find themselves in orbit around him. The Visitor has an elderly and disillusioned professor dealing with a chance encounter with a young immigrant couple at his flat in New York City (which really undersells it as a blurb, as it an incredibly heart-warming treatise on humanity with a sharp political edge and no easy answers offered); in Win Win Paul Giamatti’s struggling small town lawyer and wrestling coach and his wife (Amy Ryan) take in a young runaway who turns out be incredibly gifted at wrestling; and Spotlight of course deals with the team at the Boston Globe and their uncovering of the massive Catholic Church child sex abuse scandal.
I’ve been lucky enough to see them all, in chronological order, and something occurred to me in my half-tipsy reverie following the denouement of Spotlight: Tom McCarthy is the anti-David O. Russell. He is our generous, considerate, and gifted saviour from the uncorked douchebottle that is Russell. To wit: as Vivian has reported, Russell is one of those few filmmakers working today who can push through the studio system quagmire to make mid-budget prestige movies that tell non-franchise/superhero stories and that attract actors of great calibre. Unfortunately, at the same time, he is also a colossal cockwomble and, by most accounts, an abusive, narcissistic, bloviating arsehole. Not to mention that he hasn’t made a great movie since Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees (which I will defend to the death).
Luckily, it is during the period between then and now that along comes a McCarthy. Take all of those positive features of Russell’s, and they apply just as easily to McCarthy and his career trajectory, except — and this is key — without the ‘being a giant dick’ factor.
Start with the actors first. As stated above, David O. Russell does have an annoying knack of attracting great talent. So what about our man, McCarthy? In the space of
five four movies he has worked with, amongst others, Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, Mark Ruffalo, Hiam Abbass, Paul Giamatti, Stanley Tucci, Rachel McAdams, Amy Ryan, Richard goddamn Jenkins, Bobby Cannavale, Danai Gurira, Live Schreiber, Michelle Williams, Jeffrey Tambor, Richard Kind, Michael Keaton, Melanie Lynskey, Margo Martindale, and John Slattery. Dude attracts talent like Leonardo DiCaprio attracts blonde supermodels and rabid bears. You can stuff your Bradley Cooper, David O. Russell. Who needs an emu when you have The Tucc?
But how, then, does he use these actors, as compared to Russell? What the latter invariably does, even in his better films, is construct an obstacle course of a plot through which his colourful characters are then made to run while he lobs pies at them, screaming: ‘DO NOT DEVIATE! THERE IS ONLY ONE WAY THROUGH THIS!’ (That is a metaphor, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone if that very thing has actually happened quite literally at least once on one of his sets.)
McCarthy, on the other hand, starts from the opposite end and lovingly crafts his characters first. He shapes these characters from the ground up, imbuing them — in collaboration with his incredible performers — with desires and quirks and fears; and only then does he release them into his movies where, crucially, more than reacting to lobbed plot pies they react to each other. Contrast, for example, the labyrinthine chicanery of American Hustle with the almost-high concept nature of The Visitor. In terms of sheer amount of plot beats, there is actually a relatively small difference between the two. In Russell’s movie, however, the hand of the creator is always visible. It never feels like you are watching fully realised human beings Going Through Some Stuff. It is always actors hitting their marks (admittedly often brilliantly) on their way to the credits. It should be noted that there is nothing wrong with a twisty melodrama. The joys of watching a meandering plot unfold can be one of the greatest treats in cinema. But it’s often said that ‘when character drives the plot it’s called drama; when the plot drives the character it’s called melodrama,’ and Russell unfortunately wants to have it both ways: he would like us to watch a melodrama and be convinced that it’s a drama.
Tom McCarthy is almost the polar opposite to this. He is the actor’s director. There are only a few filmmakers working today who legitimately challenge him for this crown (looking at you, Jeff Nichols). He casts incredibly accomplished masters like Peter Dinklage, Amy Ryan, Richard Jenkins, Paul Giamatti, and Patricia Clarkson, and he gives them the space and material that lets their characters breathe. There is a wonderful, understated moment in Win Win where Giamatti gently confronts the young tearaway that is staying with him temporarily (played by Alex Shaffer) about a touchy topic in his car at night that underscores exactly how McCarthy lets all the humour in his movies come about naturally as a consequence of his characters; from their foibles and their neuroses. They are not joke delivery systems; humour just naturally arises when they interact.
Giamatti: Do you wanna talk about it?
Giamatti: Oh, good luck with that, pal!
Shaffer: … [questioning look]
Giamarri: Oh, you’ll see!
[SMASH CUT TO BACK HOME]
After having lived with the characters for half an hour or so, the laugh elicited there is huge, and the way it is all handled is also emblematic of how McCarthy reveals information about them: in a wonderful rhythm, and through incidental environmental details and little light flares of human interaction.
But perhaps more than anything else in his movies, it is the idea and various forms of expression of surrogate families that takes centre stage. Even Spotlight, with its slightly grander and more political scale, has its central team barely shown with their actual, literal families — it is the paper and their job that provides their familial bonds, or at least the ones that McCarthy is interested in. His stories tell us that while blood is something that cannot be denied or ever really escaped, fundamentally it is the bonds that arise from living a life unafraid of human connection that define us and that help dissolve the barrier between ‘family’ and ‘friends.’ One of the lovely ways he does this is by often bucking the modern trend of cutting whenever possible, instead often framing his groups in wide angles, letting them share the frame and play off each other directly; which allows interpersonal layers otherwise inaccessible to become apparent and leads to a much richer understanding of those in shot.
The Station Agent
Tom McCarthy’s movies — telling small, localised stories about a few individuals — usually don’t cost very much money to make. Starting with a paltry half million for The Station Agent, the budgets have increased with each subsequent release, but even Spotlight with its relatively sprawling scale and cast only came to cost £20 million. In this day and age that is almost loose change, although it could be an interesting sign of things to come if he develops along his current path.
Budget aside, Spotlight does see McCarthy at another interesting crossroads. It was also the first movie he has made without his long-time collaborator and director of photography, Oliver Bokelberg, opting to work instead with Masanobu Takayanagi. For McCarthy fans this change-up would have been immediately apparent. Bokelberg’s wide angle ensemble shots remained, as they kind of had to as they are key to the kinds of stories that McCarthy wants to tell, especially in a movie like Spotlight, but other than that the overall visual flavour that Takayanagi brought to the table was distinct. ‘Flash’ would be the wrong word to describe it, but compared to Bokelberg’s remarkably unobtrusive and naturalistic framing Spotlight did feature a number of shots that could be variously described as ‘interesting’, ‘creative’, or even ‘noticeable’. Of course this isn’t a knock against either style, and I’m sure McCarthy made the right choices with who to work for each project, but the point remains that it gives us something to chew on in terms of speculating about what this means for his work going forward.
So indeed we now seem to find Tom McCarthy near what appears to be somewhat of a crossroads in his career. I think that it would be a mistake, however, to assume that this will lead to some dramatic shift in style or substance. He has always had the clout to attract actors of the highest calibre; he has always written the material that he found true; and he has never needed a huge budget to tell the stories he thought worth telling. It is true that success can be a remarkably powerful solvent, but something tells me that when Tom McCarthy reaches the crossroads his inner compass will stay true and he will continue down an unmarked road of his own making, as he always has, rather than the one marked in the dirt underneath his feat.
Plus, you know, he’ll probably never abuse Amy Adams on set for a movie that’s nowhere near as good as he thinks it is.