312 Great Directors: Philip Ridley

“If this is as good as it can get, I might as well slit my wrists.”


Why This Director?
: I’d been meaning to check him out for a while is all.

My Last Experience Was…: No.

What Did I Watch: The Reflecting Skin, The Passion of Darkly Noon, Heartless.

Where Does He Fit: Viggo Mortensen’s character in The Reflecting Skin, Cameron, declares that the landscape where the movie takes place is ugly as hell once he’s returned from the war. It’s one of the many signs of delusions in this cult favorite, which is a legitimately astounding work in its own right, an allegory that may be obvious but is drawn so beautifully by Philip Ridley that I have to wonder how this got so neglected for so long. Yes, half the appeal lies in the cinematography that steals from the greatest looking movie of all in the form of Days of Heaven, but the characters in their own right feel marvelously full just by the horrible things they do to each other. What strikes me as the most incredible about this is the use of props, with at least three that I can think of that are instantly iconic-the frog, the book, and the baby. All creations straight out of the heart of American Gothic, and while the aesthetic of this is half the appeal, it is also an astounding feat of writing (everything slips away from being supernatural so easily yet that reading is a fairly simple one) and performance. How else could I explain why an event that occurs at the forty minute mark made me say something very loudly at the screen? (Cannot remember what I said, but I’m pretty sure it was a good old fashioned “oh my god!” Genuinely wrecked me.) Viggo and Lindsay Duncan are the obvious scene stealers, but it’s a shame that Sheila Moore and Duncan Fraser never really got anything out of their delightfully cartoony takes on the parents of poor, confused Seth Dove (played by Jeremy Cooper in a performance that vaults between pitch perfect and a bit too much for me). Even the ending, which sounds dubious on paper thanks to the final sequence of shots being the safest form of emotional catharsis, get dragged on so long that the laughs and the horror once again get mixed together in a package that is impossible to pin down. Also, the score! It frequently drowns out what Dolphin or Cam whisper to whoever they are sharing the scene with, as they inspire a certain floridness in their dialogue, but straining your ears and forcing yourself to read lips never felt so appropriate. An instant favorite and very possibly a masterpiece. What a debut! (Also, 1991 is certainly becoming a contender for my favorite year ever if we go by US release date.)

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Firstly, The Passion of Darkly Noon exists in an unacceptable DVD quality. It looks pretty terrible no matter where you go and it is not a cute look. Considering Ridley reportedly spray painted the wheat in Reflecting Skin, I refuse to believe he was so careless here…but I also have to note that this is a significantly less interesting work in terms of the visual palette. Sure, both movies took place on houses surrounded by nature, but forests are just more boring than long stretches of field during the golden hour, even if the film male gazes the shit out of Ashley Judd in a way that is a nice cross between genuine desire and morbid hatred, perfect for this fundamentalist’s perspective. Much less appealing are the performances, which are weirdly flat for a cast that was doing well for themselves around that time or in the future even if only one of them went on to gain a reputation (Fraser, Mortensen again, Judd, Zabriskie). Basically, the direction and screenplay are pushing them over the finish line, and it still comes out pretty close to the top of the race just in how much it enjoys being weird and probing.

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Finally, we come to Heartless, which got made after a stunningly long 14 year absence from filming and I’m worried that it will, indeed, be his final film based on his interview with Mark Kermode, but it certainly begins on a fascinating note with a baby doll and a piece of mirror being photographed. If you’ve seen The Reflecting Skin, I’m sure you’re fascinated, but things go into an incredibly bland mood. I’m all for characterizing someone with a minimum of dialogue, as Ridley is prone to, but Jim Sturgess’ character is a nothing, defined by his massive birthmark and then its absence. There is a LOT of telegraphing going on here, which is a real pity in the context of a story arc that had the potential to be something special if he had wrapped himself up in making it mad and plotless rather than coming up with imaginative ideas and fitting them into conventions. (Also, the demons are ugly as hell.)

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Most Valuable Asset: Fondness for the corrupted.
Most Excited For: Make a new movie! (I guess there’s The Krays, which he scripted.)

Coming Up Next: Queer experimentalist Derek Jarman.

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