Stifling calm after the storm
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, December 17, 2010
It's a fitting season to consider what it means to go home. For some, it's less an idyllic scene of crackling fireplaces and Mom's chocolate chip cookies than a trip down the rabbit hole. So it goes in "Night Catches Us," where memory lane looks more like a dead-end street.
It's Philadelphia 1976, and former Black Panther Marcus Washington (Anthony Mackie) returns to the old neighborhood for his father's funeral, only to get an extended tour of the reasons he left, including corrupt cops, a fractured family, gun-toting gangsters and the ghost of a friend who was gunned down after a tip to the FBI - a tip Marcus may or may not have supplied. But trouble is accompanied by nostalgia, which offers its own temptations to remain. A big one is Patricia Wilson (Kerry Washington), the wife of that deceased radical, who is now a single mother scraping by as a lawyer and trying to keep her dimwitted, rage-prone cousin Jimmy out of trouble.
There are aspects of writer-director Tanya Hamilton's tale that evoke memories of the 1998 film "American History X," in that we find a man attempting to shed a violent past, all while a younger generation - in this case Jimmy, who calls cops pigs, wears a distinctive beret and is predisposed to thrusting his fist in the air - takes up arms in support of that bygone cause. But while the older movie throbbed with intensity from beginning to end, "Night" comes off as leisurely, almost antiseptic at times. This is clearly intentional; wordless scenes take place along babbling streams, within dimly lit interiors or beneath rich green foliage.
The serenity offers a thoughtful contrast to the stories of past bloodshed, but the persistent quietude also blunts the emotional impact when big events do happen. Relationships bloom and dissolve, brawls break out, people are murdered, yet none of it feels particularly consequential. The restraint is especially overwhelming with Washington, who gives a somewhat wooden performance even when she recounts what are ostensibly the most difficult moments of her life to her endlessly curious 9-year-old daughter, played with relieving vitality by Jamara Griffin.
Except for a stellar soundtrack by the Roots, there isn't much here to make anyone overly excited. But for a movie so rooted in fury and violence, that almost feels like an impressive feat.
Contains language, sexuality and violence.