‘The subliminal desperation of its tagline – ‘Watch me’ – doesn’t even bear thinking about’ – MacDara Conroy on Paul Haggis’ ensemble drama Third Person
Have you read Going Clear? Lawrence Wright’s revealing 2013 biographical history of the Church of Scientology remained unpublished in this neck of the woods for quite some time, no thanks to the quirks of British libel law (Ireland, being for all intents and purposes part of the UK book market, got dealt a bum hand here, regardless of our own legal situation). But the book seems more readily available now that the storm has blown over, and it’s worth a read not only for Wright’s damning portrayal of a mammon-obsessed cult perpetuated by various forms of personality control, but also for the story that inspired Wright to take up the project as a broader concern: his profile for The New Yorker of Oscar-winning filmmaker – and Scientology apostate – Paul Haggis.
Paul… Haggis… Now there’s a name you might remember from the Oscars about a decade ago, when his ever-so-earnest, ensemble-cast, Racism-with-a-capital-R drama Crash took best picture honours over the hotly tipped Brokeback Mountain, and promptly disappeared into the ‘What were we thinking?’ file. Or perhaps you recall his public break from Scientology in 2009 over its support of California’s then ban on gay marriage, prompting renewed examination of the ‘church’ and its deep connections with the Tinseltown establishment. More than likely you won’t remember him so much for his movies, of which he’s only made a few of his own; while the bulk of his credits are as screenwriter for some of Clint Eastwood’s acclaimed dramas, and a couple of Daniel Craig Bonds, Haggis’ post-Crash filmography consists of heavy-handed revenge thriller In the Valley of Elah, forgettable Russell Crowe vehicle The Next Three Days, and now a quasi-reprise of Crash in his fourth feature, multi-threaded ensemble piece Third Person.
Echoing the structure of Haggis’ now widely panned Oscar-nabber, Third Person is presented as a collage of separate but somehow entwined stories – spanning the globe, no less. In Paris, because Paris, an Important Author (Liam Neeson) flits between bouts of writer’s block and afternoon delight with a much younger lover (Olivia Wilde, who, like Neeson, previously worked with Haggis on The Next Three Days) whose emotional range bounces between ‘horny’ and ‘hysterical’. In Rome, because Rome, a skeezy businessman (Adrien Brody) eyes up a voluptuous Roma woman (Israeli actor Moran Atias, previously of the TV version of Crash) who’s taking her sweet time about rescuing the daughter she claims to be in the clutches of a nefarious human trafficker. And in New York – cue Alicia Keys – an underemployed wage slave (Mila Kunis) struggles against her smug, wealthy artist ex (James Franco) and an ignorant, uncaring system to regain access to her young son after a tragedy that split them apart.
These three stories loosely connect in various ways: in their shared haunting by a titular ‘third person’ who shapes their outcome whether literally or figuratively, and their musing on various aspects of relationships, love, loss and trust. But that’s not what stands out most in this awful, awful film. By far its most significant theme appears to be ‘Women, amirite?’.
The way Haggis draw his female characters here, he conceives of them variously as wily seductresses or batshit cat ladies. Only that can explain entirely unnecessary scenes showing Olivia Wilde’s ingenue novelist Anna stripping to her underwear in the back of a car, or going full frontal in a hotel corridor. That’s gratuitous titillation dressed up (or undressed, as it were) as faux empowerment, which is itself undermined by the decidedly dodgy teacher-student power dynamic between Anna and Neeson’s literary mentor-slash-father figure Michael, replete with seriously rapey overtones. Not that such has anything specifically to do with the plot or other themes Haggis may want to convey here, because it passes without comment; it just seems to be the way he thinks trysting couples (or to be more specific, trysting men and their mistresses) behave.
The Rome storyline, meanwhile, is basically a defence of the male gaze, and of the odious notion that ‘getting the girl’ is simply a matter of persistence against resistance, as if women are castles that men must lay siege upon or something. And while the New York tale might initially direct our sympathies to Kunis’ put-upon Julia, a woman with the world stacked against her, Haggis can’t resist casting her as a villain who at least partly deserves her fate because women be crazy, yo?
It’s depressing enough to see solid talent like Kunis and Maria Bello, who has a minor role as a family lawyer who’s forgotten what phone credit is, trying so hard to act their way out of the trap Haggis’ stories have set for them. (And how do these three stories actually connect, you might wonder? By way of some ham-fisted hinting in the first act that renders the supposed ‘big reveal’ at the end completely moot at best, and at worst pitifully self-aggrandising. Speaking of which, the subliminal desperation of the film’s tagline – ‘Watch me’ – doesn’t even bear thinking about.)
But one has to ask, where do these regressive notions come from? Paul Haggis isn’t Michael Bay, after all. On reflection, I’m reminded of Going Clear, and Wright’s depiction of Scientology as an institution that, as faiths go, has a particularly cavemannish view of women, not to mention its fundamental and extreme anti-psychiatry stance. This is a belief system that, up until 2009, Haggis subscribed to with no complaints, if not outright conviction. It’s hard to believe he simply ‘saw the light’ and immediately reversed what were surely once deeply-held opinions, and cast off the pernicious influence of a worldview that, on the evidence presented here, Third Person ultimately endorses in its core values.
I guess you can take the man out of Scientology, but you can’t take Scientology out of the man.
Third Person opens nationwide on Friday November 14th