2007Director: Anton Corbijn
Cast: Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Craig Parkinson
his could well be the most beautiful collection of black-and-white photography you'll look at this year. As a bonus you get an impeccable soundtrack, featuring diegetic songs capably performed the cast, non-diegetic music by Joy Division proper, a score by New Order, and a rousing cover of "Shadowplay" by the Killers (no, I've got no idea who picked them either) over the closing credits. It's also, as expected, a real punch to the gut.
Anton Corbijn's film, his first feature, is ambitious and polished. Ultimately it's less a biopic of Joy Division's iconic lead singer than a collection of memorably bleak vignettes from the tragically short life of a young man from Macclesfield, England, named Ian Curtis (Sam Riley). The year and setting are superimposed over the first sequential scene, we first glimpse a 23-year old Curtis in his childhood bedroom very near the end of his life. From there we drift uneasily toward May 18, 1980, though months or years at a time are often elided without explanation or forewarning.
Even during the select moments that Corbijn chooses to feature in the picture—e.g. proposal and marriage to the longsuffering Deborah (Samantha Morton), Tony Wilson (Craig Parkinson) signing Joy Division's record contract with his own blood—Corbijn's camera often seems more centered around rays of light in a particular room than the visually decentered and frequently silent characters populating the frame. Critics have long spoken of the band's music as otherworldly, something not quite human, perhaps a reaction to the brutalist modern architecture dominating their childhoods in and around Manchester. There are touches of humor here and there, largely via Parkinson and Toby Kebbell, who plays the band's slovenly but reliable manager, but the film largely has the same emotional effect as a Joy Division song. The stern long shots, the starkly beautiful monochrome look of the film, and the taciturn protagonist all keep us fascinated but, most of the time, at a distance.
That austerity makes for some pretty extreme swings of emotion when anger, jealousy or physical malady explode through the cool exteriors onscreen. A singular inability to respond to his problems leads to an excruciating separation from Deborah, and elsewhere appears to be linked to an epileptic fit incurred when Curtis is forced onstage during a particularly rowdy gig. This inability to connect to those around him verbally or emotionally leads to escalating problems at home and on the road until, just hours before the band is set to depart on their first American tour, he exits the situation via a noose in the kitchen.
I suspect that the film will register most strongly not with devoted fans, but with those who share or recognize Ian Curtis' semi-autistic isolation. (I count myself among both groups.) We've heard the stories of drug-addled rock stars and celebrities going out of control, hitting bottom, etc. etc. ad nauseam. By this point we're so desensitized to rock 'n roll casualties that they seem almost part of the natural order of things. Curtis was no teetotaler, but neither was he an unbridled hedonist, and, at least in this account, succumbs to a situation that probably seemed far more dire in his own head than to anyone whom he might have asked for advice or help. What's most wrenching about the film is the cruelly logical, steady progression of withdrawal from human contact from the generally accepted—escaping at the end of the day to listen to David Bowie alone his room—to violent, permanent, irreversible alienation.
Next time you cue Closer on the iPod and turn up your noise-canceling headphones to seal out the surrounding frustration, you may well find yourself taking a moment to pause and reflect.
Closer is currently in limited release.
By: Andy Slabaugh
Published on: 2007-10-19