A closer look at 2 newly-released films I screened earlier this week (one opens this Friday - Blue Caprice - and the other - The Invader - is without an American theatrical distributor, but performed well on the international film festival circuit, and is now available on VOD courtesy of Vyer Films).
It's really a coincidence that I happened to watch 2 films, back-to-back, that feature black male lead characters, who are both alienated (whether by choice or by circumstance), and whose alienation feeds destructive behavior.
The difference between the two is that one (John Allen Muhammad, played by Isaiah Washington) wants to be even further alienated, believing himself to be something of an ubermensch, while the other, Amadou (played by Burkinabe thespian Isaka Sawadogo), desperately wants to connect.
Estranged from his wife and children, seemingly the only real human connection he seems to cherish (with his children especially), John, as depicted in Alexandre Moors' psychological drama, Blue Caprice, sees his children as adults tend to see children - as pure and unsullied. But that theory is negated as we watch him strategize with 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo (played by Tequan Richmond), in a chilling scene in a supermarket, as they shop for groceries, during which Muhammad doesn't even pretend to be covert, ruminating on how best to ellude and confuse authorities, and keep profilers off-guard, by killing at random - including women and children.
But once he loses his children, his rage (albeit a composed, mostly internal kind of rage) and desire to "do something" and act against what he feels are injustices against him, as well as a general malaise he believes has numbed the rest of the world, intensifies.
Malvo, in essence, doesn't entirely replace the 3 children John loses in a custody battle, to his ex-wife, but he's very much a child - especially one who's just as alienated, and in desperate need of a father-like figure, and thus highly impressionable, all of which John exploits fully.
We never see John do any actual shooting; The deaths we see depicted on screen all come from guns fired by Malvo. I'm not certain if that was an intentional choice by the filmmaker. It's as if he's John's Frankenstein. There's even a scene in which John says to Malvo, like a proud father to his son, "I've created a monster." And excited by his "creation," John fantasizes about using a similar kind of manipulation to create an army of young men and women, indoctrinated and used like Malvo - essentially, seemingly soulless killing machines, all in an effort to "wake up" the rest of world.
Some use art as their weapon of choice. Some protest. John kills and destroys. Although it's not clear that he's given much thought to what comes after his assembled army "wakes us up."Washington plays the character as intelligent, and even charming. He's considerably poised, and rarely displays any external anxieties.
One wonders whether the affection he seems to have for his own children is genuine, when he's so pathologically egocentric, and fully self-centered, believing himself superior to others, and alienating himself from what we call society even further.
He's incredibly cunning and manipulative. In short, he's a psychopath.
He's reminiscent of other real-life and fictional loners who went on to destroy; people who feel as if the rest of the world is against them, and/or that they have some greater insight into the human condition that the rest of us don't, and/or are just too blind to see. And they believe that it's their calling, essentially, to wake the rest of us up, via an act that ensures that they have our complete attention. He maybe even envisions himself some kind of a rebel or revolutionary.
But what led to his current state of mind, the film leaves a mystery. We just know that he's angry at the world (even though it's a chillingly calm kind of anger), and is driven enough to want to act on that anger. The film just never takes us into his head.
The fear here is that what happened is something that could happen again - the seeming randomness of it all.
The Invader starts out interestingly enough, telling a familiar tale of undocumented immigrants and their struggle to survive, but then it becomes a story of one man's obsession with a woman, nearly abandoning the immigrant struggle story that it launched with.
Amadou (played by Burkinabe thespian Isaka Sawadogo) is a stranger in a strange land. His story is a familiar one - that of many Africans who risk death on journeys across seas, in search of better lives in Europe. He's instantly at a disadvantage and alienated, if only because he's black and, we assume, poor, and in a city that's entirely unfamiliar to him - one whose population is overwhelmingly white, and richer in comparison.
But he's also the burly, rascally, virile African male archetype that, if you believe the grapevine echoes, is the stuff of many a white man's nightmares, and a white woman's dreams - the latter toyed with a bit in The Invader, although race is never a focus or topic of conversation. But one can't ignore what appears to be commentary on race being made, if only via a scattering of images and situations, in the film by its director.
Like John, Amadou exudes charm, and demands that you pay attention to him, often by not really doing very much physically. He's just a presence. But unlike John who seems to relish his disconnection and alienation from the rest of world, Amadou's alienation isn't something that he desires. He desperately wants to connect, and Agnès becomes the (at times unfortunate) human being at the other end of his touch. And once he grabs a hold of her, figuratively (although sometimes also literally), he simply refuses to let go.
You sense his frustrations with his plight - an undocumented immigrant, who has to resort to peddling logs of wood in traffic, and who doesn't have a stable residence to claim as his, and who isn't certain where his next meal will come from, or even whether he'll live to see another day. His survival is really his main motivation, even though you can't help but wonder why he singled out this particular woman as the subject of his sometimes disconcerting affections.
It's easy to understand his need to connect, but it's not as easy to understand why he was immediately taken with her. What did he see in her, other than what we heard him say to her - that he found her very attractive? You also wonder why a married woman would meet a complete stranger, who she's apparently turned on by, if only because of his bold advances (or, again, one wonders about the supposed unspoken lust that white women have for black men, and all the assumptions and stereotypes that go along with that), and doesn't take too long before deciding it's a good idea to have sex with him, despite knowing practically nothing about him; and then she swiftly dumps him when she learns that he's not who she initially assumed he was, and is nothing more than one of many undocumented immigrants in her country - at least, from her perspective.
And unlike psychopathic John, who always appears poised and in full control of his emotions, Amadou wears his on his sleeve, and explodes often, and sometimes uncontrollably. Unlike John, we are let into Amadou's head, although not fully.
His obsession maybe shouldn't be all-that shocking. From his POV, he met someone whom he believed he had an immediate connection with - a woman who slept with him not long after their initial meeting. Given his, we could say, fragile state of mind, as a stranger in a strange land, wanting desperately to relieve himself of the disconnected, alienated state in which he now exists, any connection, especially one that evolves as quickly and deeply as this one does, is cherished, and, for some, difficult to let go of, especially when one feels as if they've been so easily discarded.
He desires the kind of comfortable life that the many well-off whites whose lives he "invades," live. But he fails, which only seems to encourage him to want to continue to try, making increasingly rather bold choices with each attempt, until the finale, in which he literally takes over someone else's life. Although it's not entirely clear whether that sequence was real or imagined.
I'd note that it is bothersome, some of the brush strokes with which Belgian director Nicolas Provost paints the character. It could also be a simple misunderstanding, and a conversation with Provost will be illuminating. But he certainly doesn't shy away from being provocative. That ending sequence especially, speaks to the aforementioned simultaneous fears and desires whites are believed to have of blacks - especially black men.
That it's titled The Invader, in reference to Amadou, obviously suggests an unwanted presence, which must be, in part, how Amadou senses his presence in this new home away from home, is perceived wherever he goes, which only underscores the detachment and isolation he feels.
Two films telling 2 very different stories; but both essentially observing what could be dubbed a descent into madness by the 2 leads, fueled by alienation, a lack of control and a desire to regain that control.
Blue Caprice opens in New York City this weekend at IFC, and will be available on iTunes on the 17th.
The Invader can be rented online via Vyer Films.
Trailers for both films follow below: