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May 18, 2012

Movies You Missed 39: Michael

MichaelThis week in movies you missed: To his friends and coworkers, Michael (Michael Fuith) seems like an average thirtysomething bachelor. He sells insurance. Takes ski trips. Buys Harry Potter books for his nephew. And makes sure to pick up an extra copy for the 10-year-old he keeps locked in his basement.

What You Missed

Five months in the lives of a pedophile and his victim (David Rauchenberger). Before you run away screaming, consider this: Michael is low-key, nongraphic and nonsensationalist. None of the horrible things you may be imagining right now happen on screen — but that is how the film gets under your skin and really disturbs you.

Before this film, Austrian writer-director Markus Schleinzer worked as a casting director for Michael Haneke (Caché, Code Unknown, The White Ribbon), who is also known for depicting unpleasant subjects in an austere, just-the-facts manner. Here, you get just enough of the facts to know what's going on: By framing his images carefully and keeping scenes short, Schleinzer makes you read between the lines.

Small gestures and intonations speak volumes about the relationship between Michael and his captive, Wolfgang. The fact that their relationship sometimes appears "normal," even quasi-parental, just makes it more horrifying. At least two critics have used the phrase "banality of evil" to describe Michael's depiction of its subject. Not a lot happens, but it's still a horror film.

Why You Missed It

Pretty obvious. For theatergoers, the only harder sell than a movie about a dead child (e.g., Rabbit Hole) is a movie about a child molester.

Should You Keep Missing It?

Regardless of what I say, most people will pass on this one. But let me play devil's advocate for a minute and ask: Why?

Americans love TV shows like "Criminal Minds" and the various "CSI"s, where every other episode seems to feature a psycho with a torture chamber in his basement. We're riveted by the true tales of Jaycee Dugard and Natascha Kampusch. So why is this particular nightmare off limits?

Maybe it's because Michael is told largely from the abductor's point of view (though that's certainly not unknown in the thriller genre). Maybe it's because there are no intrepid detectives hot on Michael's trail. (Though, if you really want to know [SPOILER ALERT], things do not end happily for him.)

Michael has obvious parallels to the case of Kampusch; the abductor eventually becomes confident enough to let his captive out of the basement and even take him on road trips. The young Rauchenberger gives a frighteningly plausible performance that demonstrates both the effects of deep intimidation and the underlying will to fight and survive. (Michael suggests that, while children may adapt to awful situations, they never forget that life isn't supposed to be this way.) The kid gives the viewer someone to care about. But he isn't the protagonist of the story.

Michael doesn't ask us to sympathize with a sociopath — far from it — but it does ask us to follow him from day to day and observe how easily someone like him can blend into society. It makes him seem like a relatively ordinary person who somehow ends up committing unspeakable crimes, and it gives him no backstory, any more than Shame explained why Michael Fassbender's character wanted to get it on with every adult on two legs.

Maybe there is backstory; maybe he just is this way. (What we see of Michael's mother, brother and sister seems perfectly normal.) We'll never know, and maybe it shouldn't matter. Those are the sorts of issues Michael makes you contemplate. For many, though, contemplating them for 90 minutes will be a bridge too far.

Verdict: For those with a special interest in clinical cinematic case studies of extreme and antisocial behavior. If you saw Dahmer, Happiness and Funny Games, this may be for you, and you can spend hours debating with your friends whether it was irresponsible of the director even to broach this subject.

Have at it — the critics already have. Or, if you just want to know what happens at the end, go here.

Other New DVDs You May Have Missed

  • Afghan Luke (A battlefield journalist tries to track down a story of Canadian troops mutilating corpses.)
  • Albert Nobbs
  • Kinyarwanda (A Rwandan drama tells the story of genocide from several perspectives.)
  • Rampart (Woody Harrelson went for an Oscar nom, but didn't get one, with his portrayal of a maverick cop on the edge. Oren Moverman directed.)
  • The Time That Remains (A drama portraying the lives of Palestinians in Israel, from 1948 to the present.)

Each week in "Movies You Missed," I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)

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