Gilbey on Film: a quiet revolution

Win Win gently subverts the conventions of Hollywood story-telling.

I should begin by warning readers of a sensitive disposition that this blog post contains spoilers pertaining to the movie Win Win, and some strong language, as well as brief, positive remarks about the HBO television series The Wire, which has never knowingly been under-praised.

Many screenwriters include in their work a single line or speech that doubles as a mission statement or a setting-out of the thematic stall. In the case of Win Win, that comes in the form of a declaration wthat, when quoted out of context, would seem to suggest an action movie with a body count numerically commensurate to its running time. The line is: "Whatever the fuck it takes." And yet this movie is gentle to the point of being wan.

That line is spoken by Kyle, a taciturn but sweet-natured teenage wrestling champion whose jet-black eyebrows clash noisily with his vanilla shag-cut. On a literal level he uses it to explain how he liberates himself from an apparently inescapable hold by a competitor: he imagines that he is having his head held under water, and does whatever the fuck it takes to save himself. Kyle is played by Alex Shaffer, a wrestler in real life who makes a beautifully low-key screen debut here. I hope sincerely that Fast Times at Ridgemont High is never remade. But, if it is, the miscreants responsible will have in Shaffer a ready-made Spiccoli (the amiable stoner played in that 1982 comedy by a goofy Sean Penn).

Kyle isn't the focus of Win Win, but rather a catalyst for change and hope and a fuzzy kind of redemption in the life of the shrugging, middle-aged, almost-deflated New Jersey attorney Mike Flaherty, played by Brad Pitt.

Had you there, didn't I? Of course, Pitt would never get as far as auditioning. It's common knowledge that Paul Giamatti has the "unremarkable middle-aged disappointment" market all sewn-up. Rightly so -- he can find in any character new gradations of low-level misery and anxiety (he even dredges some up when playing a version of himself in Cold Souls). Pitt and Johnny Depp and all the other pretty-boys can just go whistle.

So Giamatti is an asset to a film that is mostly compassionate and intelligent but in many ways quite obvious; he keeps Mike real, even when the movie comes begging, cap in hand, for even more sympathy and understanding toward the character than we have already given. The movie, written and directed by Thomas McCarthy (who made The Station Agent and The Visitor, and is therefore Mr Sensitive Indie Comedy-Drama), draws some strange distinctions between its characters. It encourages us to narrow our eyes judgementally toward Kyle's errant, rehab-fresh mother (played by Melanie Lynskey with a vitality that resists our scorn) but gives Mike a free pass for conning the courts and manipulating a senile client.

Behaviour adheres to gender lines: Mike's tough-cookie wife (played by Amy Ryan, who is, like McCarthy himself, an alumnus of The Wire) is fiercely good and true, but Kyle's mother is not be trusted any further than she could stagger in a drug-dazed stupor. Men, on the other hand, flounder somewhere in between, being neither reprehensible nor angelic, but simply rounded and fallible human beings. McCarthy should know from his time on the fifth and final season of The Wire, if from nowhere else, that it doesn't have to be that way; his own character in that series, the extravagantly deceitful journalist Scott Templeton, never seemed less than complicatedly human, no matter how low he sunk.

But we'll let that slide right now. What I love about Win Win is its ending (spoiler alert!), which shows a maturity and pragmatism that is vital in life, but with which precious few films have any truck. If Win Win feels for much of its length like an above-average TV movie, the ending is a tiny wedge of Claire Denis.

It closes with Mike having effectively thrown in the towel -- due to various factors, including the debts that had led him to commit fraud, he relinquishes his practice and is shown instead in the final shot tending bar. The beauty of this is that it is a realistic decision, made by an intelligent man who has exhausted other avenues, and supported implicitly by the movie. "Whatever the fuck it takes" sounds macho and brutish, but in this final turnaround, McCarthy shows us that it can also mean swallowing your pride, walking away, compromising your dreams.

Mike doesn't end the film as a failure; he descends the career ladder because that is what he must do to care for his family. This is his particular interpretation of "Whatever the fuck it takes." Win Win doesn't contain many surprises, but that ending is revolutionary in the context of what American cinema usually tells us about how to live our lives.

Win Win is currently on release

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue