To begin, it’s WWII. Captain Ernest Krause, the kind of humble hero who says grace before drinking coffee, has been put in command of the long-range destroyer the USS Greyhound as it escorts a convoy of Allied supply ships across the Atlantic. German U-boats are hunting in the cold, choppy waters, appearing as sinister lines on the radar or creepy screw noises on the hydrophone. The bridges of the USS Greyhound are filled with occasional clangs, whistles, and naval jargon. And to certain ears, this is pure music: “Reporting a German transmission bearing zero-eight-seven degrees,” “Boatswain, sound general quarters,” “Right handsomely to 096,” and so on. Yet with all that, Greyhound isn’t a movie that’s hard to understand: There are big ships and there are submarines and inside both are men. We take it for granted that Captain Krause is an individual of good moral fiber, because he’s played by Tom Hanks, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, adapting the C.S. Forester novel The Good Shepherd. If there were any grandiose intentions on Hanks’ part, they aren’t evident in the film’s trim running time (a suspicious eighty minutes without credits) or its single-minded commitment to depicting the uncertainties and logistics of naval warfare.
Under the impassive direction of Aaron Schneider, the bridge of the destroyer becomes a stage for Krause’s internal drama, accompanied by the Greek chorus of the chain of command. The characterizations are minimal, and largely the largest fault in the film (especially, given that the film genuinely attempts some). The story is set over forty-eight hours, beginning with the first appearance of a U-boat. At each turn, Krause is faced with tactical thought exercises without easy answers: Should he try to rescue the crew of a burning supply ship or speed off to protect another that’s undefended? Should he call for support, knowing that the Germans are probably listening? The movie’s ubiquitous visual effects aren’t as convincing as its depiction of the crew, but its the competently defined sense of scale, though, that keeps the ships and submarines from looking like glorified digital bath toys. The point of view is often limited to our titular ship; our only contact with other warships comes by radio, and we rarely see the vessels of the convoy from less than a few miles away. As it happens, this verisimilitude is a good way to create suspense. While Greyhound isn’t nearly an aesthetic achievement on the level of the visual symphony that is Dunkirk, it at least manages to make something gripping out of staggering numbers and distances involved in combat at sea — even if its climactic stretch sometimes struggles with visual monotony.
Obviously, it’s hard to overlook the religious allegory of it all: the flock, the wolves, the tests and tribulations. One might go so far as to say that it’s really a matter of character psychology, and that the the theme, familiar from other works of serious-minded military fiction, is one of the imperfect mappings of moral systems across the necessities of warfare. Perhaps some of it has been lost in adaptation, yet what still sticks in the film is its realistic pace; there’s no room for speeches, rah-rah jingoism, or verbal exposition. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have reflective pauses or those moments of genre poetics that happen organically in war films. But as its best, Greyhound is about the non-metaphors of war: torpedoes, the terror of friendly fire, the logistics of steering a destroyer, messages, orders. Throughout these are seconds of hesitation in which we see something human. While lacking in certain fields, Greyhound remains an lean thriller of efficient specificity, narrow propulsion, and minimal intentions.
Greyhound is available to stream on Apple TV+
The Old Guard
The title comes mightily fitting in The Old Guard, the new film from director Gina Prince-Bythewood that’s based on the comic-book series by Greg Rucka (who as well wrote the script) and Leonardo Fernandez. Its basically a two-hour dollop of action-movie product that’s teased out to look like a superhero origin story and touting (weakly) for the possible beginnings of a franchise property. For a filmmaker that’s known for her humanity, Prince-Bythewood’s compassion and idealism seems far away from this ponderous stuff; taking a premise that could be clever or silly and turning it decidedly, well, old.
The film centers on four freelance warriors, headed by Andromache, a.k.a. Andy (Charlize Theron), who are all endowed with immortality: they never age, and their wounds, however grave, quickly and completely heal. Along with the Homeric leader, the group includes veterans of the Crusades and the Napoleonic Wars: Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). We, of course, as well get some flashbacks throughout the eras, mostly following Andy, and they’re quite unintentionally hilarious; with them coming off like they’re we’re watching LARPing at the local park (the film’s drab, very digital cinematography being no help). Yet, we’re set in the modern age most of the time, as a U.S. marine, Nile (KiKi Layne), begins to display the same power when wounded in Afghanistan and is unwillingly dragged into the group. And it’s when the others are captured by a London pharmaceuticals mogul (Harry Melling) and CIA agent (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the former who wants to extract and market their distinctive trait, where Nile must take it upon herself to recuse them. If that sounds like its hampered by conventions, it’s because it is. Prince-Bythewood, throughout, invests in her heroes’ solitude — the result of outliving all of their friends and family members — and that’s about it. The film knowingly notes that immortality would be a drag, but feels more like an glorified TV pilot. Outside of its core earnest notion on immortality, The Old Guard remains slickly and thinly bland; from its rote action and overall aesthetics to its sluggish, brooding plotting and melodramatic pathos.
The Old Guard is available to stream on Netflix
In our age where mainstream horror is overwrought with cheap, loud jump scares, it’s films like Relic, and the other wave of dread-filled arthouse films, that seems to enliven the genre a bit. Arriving as the directorial debut of Japanese-Australian director Natalie Erika James, Relic centers on the mysterious disappearance of an elderly widow, Edna (Robyn Nevin); after a few days gone, she just as mysteriously returns to find her daughter (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter (Bella Heathcote) in her home, suddenly newly concerned about what to do about her deteriorating mental state. The film has a real emblematic approach to horror, which, like The Babadook and Hereditary before it, grounds its supernatural terror in the violation of sacred familial bonds. Relic is so entirely, transparently, even explicitly about the horror of dementia and losing a loved one to it that the more traditional genre elements feel rather redundant, maybe even unnecessary.
Yet the allegory still finds life in James’ imagery and visual motif of mold and decay, the latter beginning with a water stain on the mantel over Edna’s fireplace and culminating in the emotionally devastating gut punch of a finale. James and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff enshroud the entire film in a musty gray that mimics the growing rot on Edna’s chest, a tint that grows darker and more impenetrable as the horror deepens, to go along with the growing labyrinthic life that the house grows into throughout the final act. Combining all that with the realistically messy family dynamics and expert turns from the ensemble cast the result is powerful, even if its style of horror is the one that audiences have grown used to in a post-A24 world. Yet dismissing the film on those grounds would be unfair, however — not only because of its funhouse climax and the body-horror effects that accompany it, but because of the clarity, craft, and emotional heft of James’ vision. The monster in Relic is difficult to put into any conventional category. It’s invasive, but also inherent; metaphorical, but also a physical entity; sinister, but also poignant. It’s not a ghost, not a curse, and not a mummy, although it does contain aspects of all of those things. Its most defined (and unnerving) aspect is that by the time you see its true face, it’s too late. First it will come for your parents, then it will come for you, and then it will come for your children — much like the ultimate horror, death itself. An atmospheric melding of haunted house horror with a hefty dementia allegory, Relic is the oh-so rare exploration of death that’s both chilling and openly tender.
Relic is available on VOD