Movie Review: “Three Monkeys”

Hatice Aslan, left, and Yavuz Bingöl play a couple in the center of a storm in "Three Monkeys," which frames the raw emotions on display with moments of startling beauty.
Hatice Aslan, left, and Yavuz Bingöl play a couple in the center of a storm in "Three Monkeys," which frames the raw emotions on display with moments of startling beauty. (Nbc Film)
By Dan Kois
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 27, 2009

On a dark road, a half-asleep politician strikes and kills a pedestrian, then pays off an employee to take the fall. While the employee's in prison, his wife begins an affair with the politician -- until her teenage son, moody already and loyal to his father, finds out. The setup for Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's drama "Three Monkeys" makes the movie sound like a noir thriller. It is, but it's one that's conducted mostly in daylight and at a snail's pace. The thrills in "Three Monkeys" are aesthetic, not kinetic.

Ceylan, who won the best director prize at Cannes for "Three Monkeys," tells his story through long, unhurried takes, during which his tortured characters consider their rapidly narrowing options, punctuated by emotionally grueling displays of cruelty or need. This doesn't make "Three Monkeys" -- whose title refers to the old maxim about seeing, hearing, and speaking no evil -- sound like a fun movie, and to be sure, three monkeys do not a barrelful make. But it's a film filled with excellent acting, beautifully composed shots, and one or two legitimate storytelling surprises. At times while watching it, I found myself fidgeting, my patience for long stare-offs exhausted; afterward, I couldn't stop thinking about it.

In great measure this is due to the commitment with which the four principal actors -- nearly the only characters who appear in the film -- approach their roles. Ercan Kesal, bald and hollow-eyed, plays the politician, Servet, with a combination of arrogance and sweaty panic; he's both intimidating and pitiable at the same time. Wispy-lipped Ahmet Rifat Sungar, as Ismail, the son, seems passive at first, but explodes into a surprising rage that's difficult to watch. As his father, Eyüp, Yavuz Bingöl sports an unflattering mustache and a propensity for low-cut tank tops but also a casual brutality born of wounded pride.

Most impressive is Hatice Aslan, the intense, bold actress who plays Hacer, the straying wife. Penned in at home, desperate both to help her wayward son and to escape her suffocating life, Hacer responds to her situation with effortful composure until, near movie's end, she breaks down, in a scene on a rocky crag filmed by Ceylan in devastating wide angle.

"Three Monkeys" features several such set pieces -- moments of startling beauty framing the raw emotions on display. Most unnerving are the occasional appearances of a boy, the son the family lost at a young age, whose death haunts the margins of the story and helps to make clear the otherwise inexplicable decisions that Hacer, Ismail and Eyüp make. A tragedy sets the movie on its ear -- although not at all the one I was expecting -- and forces the remaining characters to confront a dilemma. And the movie ends with one of the most stunning images I've seen in a long time, captured seemingly without special-effects trickery: a Turkish thunderstorm blowing in from the horizon as a solitary man stands in silhouette against the flickering clouds, waiting for the rain to come.

Three Monkeys (109 minutes, in Turkish with subtitles, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated but contains nudity and adult language.

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