Benten Films // 2007 // 163 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // June 24th, 2008
Can love heal damaged souls?
Some people say that we live in an increasingly sexualized society and (though it's difficult to prove) that this overstimulation has ruined our feelings of intimacy toward others and increased the rate of violent sexual assault. True or not, there is no doubt that sexual imagery is much more permissible today than in yesteryear and that sex permeates much of our culture. Writer, director, and cinematographer Matthias Glasner, in his dour and wrenching but realistic The Free Will, depicts people as prisoners to their sexual dysfunction.
Theo (Jürgen Vogel, Goodbye Lenin!, who also co-wrote the film) has just been released from a criminal psychiatric ward. He wants to change his ways, get a normal job, and live a model life, but his multiple rape convictions make this difficult. Finally, he is granted an entry position at a printing press and even makes some friends, but the demons still haunt him. Even so, he ingratiates himself with his boss, who introduces Theo to his daughter Nettie (Sabine Timoteo) who, at 27, is just now moving out of her father's house. Psychologically damaged herself, she hates men and the things that they do to her. For some reason, however, she likes Theo and is somehow enchanted by his own vocal hatred of women. A demented match, but they match nonetheless. They find a little bit of happiness in their otherwise dismal lives, but old demons die hard, threatening to destroy everything they've tried to build.
The Free Will begins with a harrowing rape scene but slows interminably from there. I certainly wouldn't want an entire film of that first scene, which is disgustingly realistic, but a little bit of action and drama in between the disturbing sex scenes would have been welcome. This plodding pace is entirely deliberate,accenting the oppressive personalities of these characters and the existential horrors of their lives, but the film moves too slowly to remain effective. After nearly three hours of wading through these people's psyches, I feel somewhat sane at least. In the world that Glasner creates, there is no goodness in man, only people walking along, damaging each other, no matter how much we would like to stop. If his intention is to critique an over-sexualized society, he fails at presenting any positive side to sex. If the act was truly as disturbing as what is presented in The Free Will, nobody would do it any longer. Contrary to what Glasner puts forth, love actually can exist and people can be good for one another, rather than just live together in a codependent state of emotional abuse.
Though I disagree with his standpoint, the trouble with the film lies not with the tone, but the pacing. Glasner, in addition to writing and shooting the film, also edited it. I respect a filmmaker working by himself and staying true to his vision, but his point had been made long before these 163 minutes were up. Other hands were necessary to refine his vision and make a watchable film. An hour removed could have made for a powerfully affecting, deeply depressing film; what stands is overkill. The deliberate pace of this emotional marathon is made even longer by many of Glasner's stylistic choices. The film has little discernable music. Often, the score for a film is overlooked -- but when it's entirely absent, the missing piece becomes very apparent. The performers carry all of the emotional weight and, though they do a very good job and the lack of music adds to the realistic feel, there is nothing between passages of dialog to help pass the time. Staring blankly goes slowly enough; watching others do it is a whole different ballgame. In addition to the lack of action and music, many of the scenes are shot under minimal lights and some are in the pitch black. It's hard to say whether the transfer is partly responsible for this or if it was entirely by choice. Darkness is more than welcome in the harrowing scenes, and it adds to the depressing tone, but makes it impossible to see what is going on onscreen.
It would be easier to tell if the darkness was a choice if the overall image transfer was better. Newcomer label Benten Films has scored big with a few great releases, but their work on The Free Will leaves a lot to be desired. The anamorphic images look good most of the time but, especially in these dark scenes, there is a considerable amount of ghosting and grain. There may have been nothing they could do to clean it up, but it sometimes looks terrible. The sound is better, with all the speakers being used for ambient sound, immersing the viewers in the very uncomfortable world. The only extra of note is a commentary from Glasner, speaking in German with English subtitles, talking about the production and the filming of some of the most disturbing scenes. The Free Will does not live up to the standard Benten Films has set for themselves.
Though there is much in The Free Will that I don't like, the performances from the two leads are downright amazing. Both Vogel and Timoteo are phenomenally realistic in every word and action, their desperation flooding every scene. While it's true that the two of them have to carry all of the emotion in the film, they are more than up to the task. One of Glasner's intentions with the film was to humanize the rapist, turning him into a kind of victim. While this is repugnant to me on every level, Vogel does everything in his power to make it so. Timoteo is incredibly convincing, yearning for someone to reach out to her and, watching her, your heart bleeds. She is compelling, even if her outpourings of emotion are hard to take.
I find myself mixed after watching The Free Will. The performances are good and it certainly deserves to be seen. Yet the tone, pacing, and length make it very hard to recommend. Even for those who have no issue with interminable existential studies, many of the scenes are so violent and uncomfortable they are hard to watch. The Free Will may not deserve it, but there will be many who turn the film off after the first ten minutes. The content is so graphic and gut-wrenchingly realistic that there must be something wrong if you don't feel dirty after the scene cuts.
There is enough of quality in this film to recommend it, except there is a lot that turns me off to it entirely. This is a hung jury.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Benten Films
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
Running Time: 163 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio commentary from Matthias Glasner
* Critical essay by David Fear