Image Entertainment // 2008 // 118 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 27th, 2010
He is what he calls himself, a monster.
"You have to do something!"
David Lurie (John Malkovich, Burn After Reading) is a South African professor with a reputation for his wandering eye. He's having an affair with a student named Melanie (Antoinette Engel), but things quickly turn sour when Melanie's family finds out. After a brief inquiry, David is fired. Attempting to clear his head and figure out where to go next, David decides to spend some time on a rural farm with his estranged daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines, The Prisoner). Shortly after arriving there, something terrible happens: David and Lucy are attacked by three local teenage boys. Lucy is raped; David is beaten and burned. In the aftermath of this tragic event, David and Lucy attempt to pull the pieces of their lives together. Both are forced to make some difficult decisions, but will they make the right ones?
Disgrace is the sort of drama that comes along all-too-rarely: the kind that truthfully and gracefully asks difficult questions and is willing to respect the difficult answers. Though one might take a glance at the basic structure of the story and assume it is a simple morality play, that assumption couldn't be further off the mark. This is not a tale about a bad man who magically transforms into a good man in the wake of a tragedy, but rather a tale about a deeply flawed man who starts to come to terms with the reality of the evolving world he is living in. It is a complex portrait of post-apartheid South Africa that digs into some dark truths with unwavering clarity.
David is an interesting central figure in a number of ways, the first of which is that he is not a pleasant character by any stretch of the imagination. Early in the movie, he subtly compares himself to Lucifer, absurdly suggesting that he is a solitary monster who will never fit in with the rest of humanity and who deserves the sympathy of others. When he faces the inquiry board, he smugly admits to being guilty on all charges and makes no attempt to provide context or explain his actions, despite urgings from his colleagues to do so. "Let's just dispense the punishment and get on with our lives," he says with a smirk. He seems enamored with the idea of being a liberated man, free to act on any urges he may have without regard for the consequences. In other words, he'll sleep with a student if he damn well pleases.
Later in the film, after David is beaten and his daughter is raped, he quietly comes to the dark realization that those responsible for his suffering were essentially operating under the exact same mentality: they acted on their urges without regard for the consequences. It's at this moment that he begins to understand why the family of the student he slept with might feel so very hurt and angry. Granted, David's behavior wasn't nearly as extreme, but the similarities are there nonetheless: he abused his power as an influential figure in his student's life just as the teenage boys abused their power as human beings with greater physical strength than David and Lucy.
The second half of the film contains some developments and revelations that I will not spoil, but suffice it to say that it contains some proposed compromises that are very troubling to contemplate indeed. There are certain scenarios in life that force human beings to do things that people in different situations might find repulsive. When given a choice between dignity and survival, what is one to choose? The answer is not an easy one. You'll see what I mean.
John Malkovich is an actor of unusual mannerisms which are often mocked and dismissed, but I've always been impressed with his ability to hit challenging notes that others often stumble over. He's a perfect choice for this role, masterfully depicting both the elitist snobbery of the earlier scenes and the tormented confliction of the later scenes. Semi-successful South African accent aside, this is one of those perfect marriages of actor and material that really should have earned Malkovich more attention than it did. The rest of the cast is primarily comprised of unknowns and relative newcomers, all of whom manage to play their parts in a natural and effective manner. Even so, the film pretty much lives and dies on the strength of Malkovich's multi-layered performance.
The Blu-ray transfer gets the job done nicely, looking good pretty consistently and great on occasion. Some of the more colorful South African locations just about pop off the screen, offering warmth and vibrance but not disrupting the relatively low-key aesthetic of the film. Detail is solid throughout, particularly background detail during nature shots. There's an inconsistent level of grain that tends to be heavier during some of the darker scenes, but it's rarely problematic. Audio is pretty quiet for the most part, as the film is largely dialogue-centered and offering rather minimal sound design. The occasional bursts of colorful music are rather striking, but the track is generally a very understated one. Supplements are on the lightweight side: a 10-minute behind-the-scenes featurette (mostly rambling footage set to music) and some very brief interviews with the primary cast-and-crew members (Malkovich seems incredibly bored by the routine questions he receives). Oh, and you get a theatrical trailer.
Disgrace is an excellent drama that gives John Malkovich a role to draw out his considerable talents. The Blu-ray release is thin on supplements but boasts a strong transfer. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R