Amoeblog

"As If Richard Matheson Had Written a Terrence Malick Film": Stake Land (2011)

Posted by Charles Reece, May 1, 2011 11:55pm | Post a Comment
stake land poster

Following last week's release of Kelly Reichardt's languorous westerner Meek's Cutoff, we get Jim Mickle's not quite as languorous (or, even, as) post-apocalyptic vampire film Stake Land. It has more visceral violence (and vampires, of course) than the former, but enough contemplative wide shots of trudging through dull colored landscapes to capture the imagination of the average boring-film cineaste -- the kind who uses terms like poetic realism and lyricism, and, when reaching for the sublime, suggests Terrence Malick (or, if really wanting to prove his or her bona fides, Tarr, Tarkovsky, or Bresson). Vampire films aren't exactly made for this type (excepting maybe Carl Dreyer's Vampyr), but Mickle tries by -- according to many reviews that dealt with his supposed literary precedents -- grafting the subgenre onto Cormac McCarthy's sci-fi bildungsroman The Road, an ideologically boring version of growing up after the apocalypse. To wit:
  • Now, it's perfectly true that the story of Stake Land is strikingly similar to that of The Road, the post-apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy novel that reached the screen last year by way of Aussie filmmaker John Hillcoat (except with that film's portentous, minimalist allegory replaced with an actual story). -- Andrew O'Hehir, Salon  
  • Fans of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road will find much to enjoy in this sombre and nerve-wracking post-apocalyptic horror film[.] -- Bruce Jones, The New Yorker
  • Add vicious, voracious bloodsuckers to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and you have Stake Land[.] -- Maitland McDonagh, Film Journal International
The odd man out here is O'Hehir, who takes a stand for good old genre plotting over "minimalist allegory," which is another way of saying aestheticized tedium. As it happens, his evaluation is correct, but not because of plot always trumping boredom. I love minimalism too much to not believe in the aesthetic value of monotony. David Foster Wallace was on to something in detailing the drudgery of IRS accountants in his last, incomplete and posthumous novel, The Pale King: that even their work can be interesting and meaningful if one looks long enough. But others might suggest that the author's suicide before the book was finished calls into question the value of studying ennui (as Jonathan Raban says in the link, "a brute denial of all that he intended" the book "to stand for"). Nevertheless, Hillcoat's film adaptation of The Road lost a great deal by abbreviating McCarthy's longueurs. The hardship of a long travel through a barren wasteland feels more like walking a few miles, thereby betraying the meticulously constructed effect of McCarthy's desiccated habitus in which the post-apocalyptic bodies must endure. Much like Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, the film leaves its audience with a focus on plot and action when neither is what is particularly important to the story being adapted. Contrary to O'Hehir, the problem with Hillcoat's The Road wasn't too little plot, but too much. Because Stake Land has more of a plot to focus on, it's a more successful film.

Where Mickle's film fails is in its overreliance on the generic contrivances of plot, which I guess is what some of the critics are getting at with their use of the Malick meme:
  • The Terrence Malick approach may be novel, but it probably isn't right for this material -- or at least not in the hands of this director. -- Josh Bellfilmcritic.com
  • An odd, ambitious and only partially successful fusion of Terrence Malick poetics and 28 Days Later viscera[.] -- Scott TobiasWNYC
  • It’s an ambitious hybrid, grafting the ethereal, landscape-driven, light-infused beauty and naïf narration associated with Terrence Malick onto a tale in which struggle against supernatural forces is just one challenge of coming of age[.] -- Karina LongworthThe Village Voice

Personally, with the exception of Badlands, I've not found Malick's works to be anything more than kitsch with some fetching tableaux. (He's begun two of his four extant feature lengths with twaddle about the beauty of savages living undisturbed by the sea, for example.) In place of Stake Land failing to live up to a vampire film directed by Malick (or McCarthy's novel), I'd suggest it fails to live up to its most obvious source material, Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. The story is set in Matheson's world with its zombie/vampire hybrids, only moved westward and in a time just prior to his novel when more humans were still alive. Matheson's book doesn't have any more of a plot than The Road, focusing instead on the daily routines of its protagonist, Robert Neville, trying to stay alive. There's an entire chapter (the best one, in fact) devoted to Neville's earning the trust of a dog, the only other non-vampire still alive in New York. Unfortunately, Matheson is filed in the horror section, McCarthy in literature, so mentioning the former doesn't carry as much cultural capital. Though both authors convey how routinization serves to constitute and retain a sense of humanity, no one asks what The Road loses by taking out the vampires (e.g., Matheson's dialectic between racial ideology and genetics in the allegorical struggle between the last remaining man against a new race). Likewise, I don't expect to see any critics wondering how much better Malick's films might be if scripted by Matheson. Stake Land was in the position to ask such questions, but reverts to another man against monster plot, which it manages to diminish further by giving it a personal revenge twist, saying not much about man, monster or the boy having to grow up in this milieu.

November 6, 2009

Posted by phil blankenship, November 6, 2009 11:11pm | Post a Comment
The Road movie ticket stub