(This post originally appeared in September, 2008; it has been modified. Three Monkeys opens today in New York City, courtesy of Zeitgeist Films)
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys is a scorching portrait of moral corruption and social decay, a haunting and indelible film that instantly moves to the top of my list as the best of this year’s crop. Following on the heels of his masterful Climates (which was named on this blog as the best film of 2006), Ceylan has maintained his sense of humor and his unmistakable style with this depiction of a small family that can’t seem to do the right thing. Ever.
Eyüp (Yavuz Bingol) is a chauffer for Servet (Ercan Keysal), a small-time politician who accidentally kills a pedestrian; a hit and run on a dark and winding road. Instead of taking the rap, Servet convinces Eyüp to take responsibility for the accident and do the requisite jail time in exchange for a handsome payoff; simply take a nine-month turn in prison, keep things quiet and make a small fortune. Eyüp accepts, his dedication to his boss (and his desire for the money) remaining unquestioned. While he’s away in jail, his son Ismail (Rifat Sungar) and sultry wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan) decide that nine months might be too long to wait; the pair decide to approach Servet in the hopes of scoring some cash up front. A series of moral compromises follows, each a new catalyst for the decline and fall of a family riven with greed and loss.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Three Monkeys
This being a Nuri Bilge Ceylan film, the narrative is as straightforward as the emotions are raw, but the expression of each is typically unique. Working with cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki (who also shot Climates), Ceylan has stripped the film of much of its color, soaking the frame in ambiguous grays and envious greens, saturating each image with so much heat (and so many beads of sweat) that you almost expect to see blood literally boiling. At the same time, Ceylan reframes the droll, fractured, close-up driven narrative style that has defined his previous films by including some truly haunting moments; the appearance of a dead child in the narrative is chilling and goes a long way toward explaining the tensions on display. Ceylan uses moments like these as a poet would, allowing the ghost of a lost brother to appear as if from the ether (in a shot that cleverly echoes the finale of, and I mean it, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind) and then having the same child appear suddenly as a son seeking to comfort his devastated father in the wake of his crumbling marriage, both seemingly re-born into disaster after Eyüp's gestationary nine month stay in prison. These are moments of breathtaking tenderness, which only goes to prove that Ceylan is more than a finger-wagging wise-ass and reconfirms him as a true believer in the great tragedy of human failure.
What makes Three Monkeys so powerful and so intense, though, is the coupling of Ceylan’s dazzlingly dingy visuals with an awe-inspiring sound design; Ceylan uses single, clear sounds (a fly buzzing, the rush of breathing) as a way to deepen his cinematography, forgoing the usual tricks of the trade in favor of sustained passages of intensely focused sound that brings the viewer so deeply into the shot, you would swear you could read the character’s mind. The effect feels like a reinvention of the close-up, filling the frame and the entire theater with cinema at its most concentrated. But Ceylan can't avoid making a few jokes, here and there; there is a great musical gag in the film (it involves a cell phone ringtone) that grows less and less funny as the story becomes more and more sad. If anything, the joke provides a much needed sense of levity, an on-the-nose reminder as to why music may not be necessary at all.
By the time the film arrives at its final shot, a masterpiece of pathetic fallacy that is so fortunately choreographed by nature you’d swear that Ceylan had control of the elements, the crescendo of emotion has reached its climax and there is nothing left to do but watch the clouds open up relieve the pressure. This is what movies were made for, a classic tragedy that uses the power of the big screen to create a world of complexity, intensity and the inevitable realization that human nature is something eternal; a cycle of corruption that is built into our very fiber. I cannot wait to see this film again, and I am thrilled it has a home on the big screen, the place it was perfectly, flawlessly designed to be seen. Fingers crossed for success, and kudos to Zeitgeist for rescuing this film and bringing it to American audiences.