For decades, Woody Allen has been making a movie a year and never shown any signs of slowing down. He turns 80 in December, has 47 movies behind him, is currently making an original series for Amazon and is about to shoot his first film with Bruce Willis. Allen, one of the great American filmmakers, has managed to have an extraordinarily durable career, in spite of artistic and personal setbacks that have made him frustrating to his longtime fans and controversial for those following tabloid journalism. His films, whether on purpose or accidentally, sometimes come across like commentaries on his existence, both as an artist and as a flawed, troubled and contradictory man.
While Allen’s comedies are beloved and the most famous of his cinematic output, his thrillers are even more fascinating and cause for celebration. It’s in his dark, laugh-free dramas that Allen hones in on the most mystifying aspect of human nature: how smart, educated and seemingly pleasant people can turn to murder.
Irrational Man stars Joaquin Phoenix as Abe, a highly regarded philosophy professor whose brilliance is countered with alcoholism and barely concealed inner demons. Jill (played by Emma Stone) is one of his students, and is infatuated with him and also the first to notice that there’s something noticeably wrong with Abe.
Allen’s crisp, beautifully shot thriller is loaded with terrific dialogue, great performances and a welcome change of setting. Stone has never been more fetching and, again, is an excellent collaborator with Allen. Likewise, Parker Posey, a veteran character actress, skillfully underplays her pivotal role as Abe’s colleague. Phoenix, sporting a prominent pot belly, brings an expectedly odd quality to his character, conveying Abe’s mystery and lure.
While Allen’s earlier works, both his comedies and dramas, have dealt with the correlating subject of murder, death and guilt, his latter works on the subject have an undeniable synergy. Along with the Scarlett Johannson-starring Match Point and the Colin Ferrell/Ewan McGregor vehicle Cassandra’s Dream, this creates a trilogy in which attractive, promising young adults find their bright futures tainted by the temptation to kill someone who “deserves it.” While Match Point was the most haunting (and one of Allen’s best) and the underrated, spellbinding Cassandra’s Dream was undermined by its abrupt ending, this one isn’t as strong but still gets under your skin.
As in Match Point, Allen goes for a shocker finish, in which chance and luck play a part in whether the guilty escape or meet doomed outcomes. The climactic scene is clever and memorable but awkwardly staged. Far more effective is Allen’s ongoing theme of contradictions, as upbeat music plays over some of the most unsettling moments. Likewise, the beautiful Rhode Island vistas compliment the drama and provide an oddly rich palette for such a sinister tale.
From the very start, it’s clear Allen is doing something different, as his traditional, black and white opening credits atypically have no music playing over them, only the faint sound of cars driving by. The tight editing keeps the story focused and always moving forward, without any distracting subplots or needless scenes.
The image I’ll never forget is when we see Abe walking away from a truly immoral act, the camera fixating on his face; the music playing remains joyful, perhaps a soundtrack to what’s playing in his mind, but we see the tortured look of regret and possibly defeat on his face.
For all the laughter and joy Allen’s farces have given us, it’s his no-nonsense, bleak and troubling x-rays of mankind that have consistently stayed with me. Few modern filmmakers are better than Allen at exploring the maddening change within, in which the sane become irrational.
Photo courtesy Sony Classics