MGM // 2001 // 103 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // September 26th, 2002
A myth. A monster. A world gone media mad.
A twisted take on "Beauty and the Beast" from independent writer/director Hal Hartley, No Such Thing sacrifices broad appeal, coherent narrative, and depth in favor of a stilted style and a story disconnected from the audience. If that appeals to you, then you probably are just dying to pay a high price for this featureless disc!
The Monster (Robert John Burke), as befits a near-immortal being, gets a little cranky when a film crew comes out to his extremely remote corner of Iceland, so he kills them. Using their sound equipment, he sends a message back to the television station that sent them, hoping to provoke a response from The Boss (Helen Mirren). That response comes in the personage of Beatrice (Sarah Polley), a whisper-quiet young journalist whose fiancé was among The Monster's victims. Her journey to Iceland takes an extended and painful detour, but thanks to the efforts of Doctor Anna (Julie Christie), Beatrice is able to resume her quest.
Once our beauty and our beast come face to face, the dialogue flies fast and furious between them. Considering The Monster killed Beatrice's fiancé, and so many other people, it's remarkably low-key. I bet Beatrice's Valium prescription helps. Anyway, she eventually convinces him to come to New York City, and subject himself to a full blown hysterical media circus, on the off chance that in NYC he can find a way to die. Don't we all wish for him to die? Why not! Anything to make the film shorter.
Since his graduation from film studies at the State University of New York in 1984, writer/director Hal Hartley has certainly devoted his career to putting the "independent" in "independent film." In both financial and aesthetic aspects, Hartley seems to have an ambivalent relationship with the Hollywood film industry, preferring to set his own course. Many commentators remark on the nature of Hartley films, so distinctively bizarre that they are intensely appealing to a cadre of fans. Hartley admits that his style is not for the faint of heart, saying, "I know my films are extreme in certain ways, like the fact that nobody smiles."
Prior to screening No Such Thing, I had never seen a Hartley film, nor had I heard of this idiosyncratic auteur. I freely grant that Hartley has created a film with an original style that a niche of viewers may find enthralling.
Hal Hartley might be horrified that my reaction to No Such Thing was not strong, either in appreciation or hatred. No Such Thing simply bored me, as if it were a gourmet meal, with finely tuned presentation, placed at table with a flourish, but with a flat taste, more bland than brilliant. While it is evident that Hartley intends No Such Thing to be a dark commentary on aspects of our media saturated modern lives, but why should we care if we're all on the outside of the film looking in?
The situations, the people, the dialogue, all of it paints a picture that is so stilted, so out of kilter that I felt I was watching a parallel universe. A world detached from our own space and time, running with a set of rules suited to the fevered mind of Hal Hartley, No Such Thing ends up more an indulgence toward his fans than a serious, thoughtful film accessible to a wider audience. Furthermore, Hartley apologists may rave with exquisite wonder at his insightful criticisms of our obsessive media culture, but perhaps you will agree (should you rent No Such Thing despite this review) that this swimming pool stops at the shallow end. Though not a fatal flaw by itself, when crushingly familiar views are dressed up in banal clothes, No Such Thing ends up going over like a gigantic glass of warm milk at bedtime.
A number of the cast may be familiar to you, such as Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter, Go) or Julie Christie (Dr. Zhivago, Nashville, Hamlet (1996)). However, none of the acting stands out long enough to merit recognition before it is sucked back down into the bubbling Hal Hartley morass. Robert John Burke (Robocop 3, Thinner) tosses off his cranky witticisms from behind latex well enough, but Helen Mirren (2010, Prime Suspect, Gosford Park) is so dialed-back that her media-crazy character lacks the intended impact.
The anamorphic video is nearly clean of dirt or defects. Edge enhancement is quite apparent in the nifty opening credits, but less so as the film progresses, though it is still evident. Otherwise, the color palette is deliberately kept modest and neutral, though when splashes of color appear they are solid and pleasing.
Surprisingly, the best feature of the Dolby Digital 2.0 track is the original music by Hal Hartley! Evocative, emotional, and peculiar, Hartley's compelling compositions are presented appropriately across the front soundstage. In other respects, the sound is adequate but not impressive compared to similar front-channel oriented "talky" films. The review copy was Dolby Digital 2.0, but some merchants indicate that the released disc has a 5.1 track. Caveat emptor!
Given my bored antipathy for No Such Thing, I can't decide whether a Hal Hartley commentary would have been an opportunity to reevaluate No Such Thing, or simply (as the AV Onion recently put it) another Commentary of the Damned. Still, seeing as how Hartley is outside the usual Hollywood milieu, some opportunity to explain his unique style would have been greatly appreciated.
If not that, then how about any real extra content? MGM has the nerve to slap No Such Thing onto the shiny disc with no content and then set it at an outrageously high price point ($29.98 list)!
Hal Hartley fans will no doubt dissect the pleasures and oddities of No Such Thing with fervent joy, but few others will find much to love, particularly with such a lack of content and at that price. Don't buy No Such Thing on a lark, and even for a rental, No Such Thing faces long odds for any but the most niche of audiences.
No Such Thing is remanded to the custody of the sheriff pending a psychological report. I don't know what to do with that defendant, but as to MGM, they are fined for excessive imbalance between disc quality and sale price.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer