Judge William Lee wants to buy a black and white monkey.
See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil.
The Turkish movie Three Monkeys is a spare but atmospheric work. Its characters live in a realistic world but they're teetering on an abyss of such compromised morals that their world is distorted and ugly. The movie evokes the philosophical spirit of film noir but here it's presented without the flashy criminal element and the tough anti-hero. Rather, this is a portrait of a somewhat ordinary family coping without the usual filters between right and wrong. Patient viewers will also be sucked into this tale of personal pain and darkness.
Facts of the Case
Servet (Ercan Kesal), a politician, dozes off behind the wheel and kills a pedestrian. Hoping to preserve his public career, he convinces his chauffeur Eyüp (Yavuz Bingöl) to take the rap with the promise of a big cash payment when he returns from prison. While Eyüp serves his employer's time, his son Ismail (Ahmet Rifat Sungar) can't seem to get a break and his wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan) is lonely and restless. When Hacer asks Servet for an advance on the money coming to her husband they begin an affair that everyone seems to suspect but no one will speak of aloud.
The most immediately striking aspect of Three Monkeys is its look. The choice of angles and especially the high contrast lighting gives the movie such a harsh visual quality that it isn't hard to imagine these visuals in stark black and white. The opening scene observes a car traveling along a country road at night. Its headlights cast the only pools of illumination in the darkness and as the car progresses further along the road, the blackness envelops and swallows the light. It's a simple effect made hypnotic by the cinematography. In the daylight, the film's palette is desaturated and the remaining color is given a sickly, pale yellow bias. It feels as though the characters and their environment were suffering fatigue. Everything looks tired of disappointment and struggle. Tired of living.
There isn't a lot of dialogue in the screenplay written by director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Climates), his wife Ebru Ceylan and actor Ercan Kesal. Still, the director manages to convey some depth in his characters through small gestures, facial expressions and telling silences. There's a ghost whose presence says so much about the family without saying anything. It's yet another example of Ceylan's mastery of visual storytelling.
Ceylan gets some effective performances from his cast. The scene when Ismail confronts his mother about her affair without directly saying what he suspects is one of many tense moments. Eyüp's silent anger toward Hacer when they are in their bedroom is another tricky moment that manages to avoid melodrama to make the scene just a little unpredictable. Eyüp's wordless reaction at the film's climax is particularly devastating. It's a sequence that seems to last an eternity as you try to understand his action and its implication. Eyüp, who agrees to go to prison for another man in exchange for a cash reward, is not a simple character. Even when you think you have him figured out, you can't quite root for him, nor can you dismiss him.
The characters in Three Monkeys see the distinction between right and wrong a bit blurrier than normal people. They're desperate or restless enough that they're willing to make a deal with Servet, but they're not so much victims as they are co-conspirators or fellow opportunists. The long silences in the movie are significant for the three family members because they no long communicate in a meaningful way. As a result, their moral boundaries have lost meaning. The movie is a thoughtful portrait of a family in anguish trying anything to dull the pain.
Zeitgeist Films has delivered a pleasing presentation of the movie on DVD. The image is very impressive and though the film is deliberately ugly it is beautifully rendered. The picture is sharp and the black levels are deep. The stereo mix is spare but effective. I was paying more attention to the subtitles but the dialogue sounded fairly strong. There's little music on the soundtrack but the environmental sound effects cut through the silence with crisp precision when needed. One thing I can't account for is the film's running time of 104 minutes. That's five minutes short of what's listed on the packaging and on IMDb. Aside from Ismail having fewer scenes that the other characters, I didn't notice any obvious suggestion of missing scenes.
The film's trailer is included on the disc. On a three-panel insert there is a printed interview with the director (covering four pages). What at first glance appears to be lengthy liner notes is actually a fairly in-depth talk with Ceylan covering the film's origins, his writing process, casting and working with the actors. It provides good background for the film and sparked my interest in the director's other work.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The movie requires some patience and attention. The characters don't say much so the story is revealed in the visual details. Communicating the passage of time is something that's taken for granted in most movies but here viewers have to watch for the cues and decide for themselves where in the story's timeline we've suddenly reached. The look of the movie captured my attention and I was practically mesmerized by the way it unfolded but I can understand how Ceylan's style might frustrate some viewers.
Visually arresting and emotionally complex, Three Monkeys might feel slow to some viewers but I got sucked in to its story of a family suppressing its pain by living in a moral grey zone. Great cinematography is supported by believable performances and it all contributes to an effectively moody drama. I just hope that I didn't make it sound too bleak because it's not.
Not guilty and not bleak.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
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