Sunday, 1 March 2020

Little Joe

Pollen Goods

Little Joe
2019 USA Directed by Jessica Hausner
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Some minor spoilers as to the plot mechanics here.

I hadn’t heard of this film until about a week ago and, at first, I dismissed it as something to not bother with because I just assumed from its title, Little Joe, that it would be another look at Warhol’s Factory through the eyes of Joe Dallesandro. Luckily, I caught a look at the poster a few days later and realised that this was nothing to do with that. Instead, we have a home grown British sci-fi/horror movie which is, unbelievably, yet another in... I dunno, four or five ‘unofficial reworkings’ in the past 12 months, of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. The difference being that, in the case of Little Joe, it also happens to be a really good movie and something I can see myself watching again.

So the plot involves the main protagonist Alice, played by the brilliant Emily Beecham who was so good in Daphne (which I reviewed here), heading a team to meet the deadline for a new engineered plant. The plant is named Little Joe, after her own son Joe, played by Kit Connor and the idea is that the plant is not as resilient as some and needs love and care to grow. In return, it rewards the owner with a pollen that makes people happy. Due to various commercial reasons, the plant is engineered so that it is not able to reproduce itself and this turns out to be an important plot point when it comes to the plant’s own survival instincts. Alice gives a plant to her son while they are still in the testing stage but it’s soon apparent to the audience, as well as a member of the team played by Kerry Fox, that the plant is doing a little more than what it’s supposed to.

And it’s a neat little movie full of great performances by those three and co-star Ben Whishaw, who plays Alice’s assistant with a crush on her. The way each of the characters and the other people who work for the same company are set up is presumably so that Hausner, who also wrote this, can use deviations from what the audience can see are their normal behaviours to ratchet up the paranoia as we begin to realise that anybody who has sniffed the pollen has become a host being with the main directive of protecting the future of the plants at all costs.

The cinematography is interesting too. The film starts off with a credit sequence of a slow camera pan above the room full of plants at the factory and the rest of the movie takes its cue from this. There is camera movement throughout almost all of the movie. Not very fast camera movement, think the opening of A Clockwork Orange with that slow zoom... there are some static shots in the movie but they are very few and far between. The movement isn’t too obtrusive but it does tend to call attention to itself a lot. The film therefore feels more European because there is no focus in the shots on any particular person at times...

It’s like that shot in Scorcese’s Taxi Driver where the camera pans away from the main protagonist and looks at a blank hallway instead while the scene plays out. This film achieves the same thing and focuses your brain on what is being said by not matching up the content of the frame exactly to the action and it gives the film an almost constant, voyeuristic, fly-on-the-wall feel to it... which is helpful in some ways because the film is mostly split between two locations... Alice’s work space and her house... which both have very carefully delineated shapes, patterns and colours giving an almost artificial feel to the environments depicted.

In at least two shots at different points in the movie, she takes the camera's deliberate lack of focus on the content of the shot to extremes where she has conversations taking place between two people, one at each side of the screen... and then slowly but surely zooms into the middle space of the frame where there’s absolutely nothing happening, in kind of an unfocussed area of the shot, as the heads disappear off the sides of the shot and we are just left with, effectively, dead space as the conversation plays out. Which is an interesting and, for me at least, unexpected choice to make.

The film is a slow burn as various characters are slowly ‘going over’ to a kind of hive plant mind but the real fright moments are caused by the friction and tension created by the music of Teiji Ito, which is amazing. I don’t know if it was composed specifically for this film or whether it is needle-dropped in from existing works (having trouble finding out that info at the moment) but I would love to get a hold of it. It’s like listening to a chorus of slowly boiling, whistling kettles which are then suddenly punctuated by harsh percussion with a real lack of harmony and... I hope I can find this stuff on CD somewhere is all I’m saying about that.

So yeah, the maybe slightly disappointing stuff is the fact that, by about three quarters of the way through the movie, they feel the need to start hitting us over the head with plot points which are, by now, blatantly obvious... almost like the film-makers weren’t confident of the job they’d done earlier in the picture. My companion as I watched this one remarked to me, “How stupid do they think we are?” at the end of the movie. I think the film just about gets away with it myself but the ending, too, is something you can see coming a mile off. It’s problematic anyway because, honestly, I can’t think of a better ending for Little Joe but, yeah, don’t expect to be going to see a movie that’s full of surprises here. Instead, go to see a wonderful and interestingly made piece which is somewhat hypnotic in the way it washes over the audience. Definitely one I’d recommend to anybody who’s remotely interested in the moving image and certainly one of the more subtle and effective remakes of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers I’ve seen in quite some time.

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