Monday, February 8, 2021

Kevinography, part 9: Testament (1983)

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This is part 9 in a series in which, for reasons not really clear, I watch all watchable movies with Kevin Costner. And maybe even some unwatchable ones. I will then comment on them here for you, including a synopsis in case you aren't familiar with them. 
Synopsis: In the spring of 1983, the United States are suffering a nuclear attack. The eastern seaboard is immediately blown to pieces, as are most major cities. The citizens of the small suburban town of Hamlin, California, experience the apocalypse as an incremental breakdown. They try to preserve as much of their previous life-styles as possible, but resources dwindle and the body-count ever increases. We follow the fate of a young family through these travails. 

Analysis: Putting this movie in the Kevinography feels a bit like cheating since Costner is only in a glorious four scenes of the movie, and neither his performance nor character are especially noteworthy. But Patron Tim Westmyr made me aware of the movie and recommended it as the "most realistic portrayal of the aftermath of a nuclear attack", so my curiosity was awakened. 

As you might tell from the synopsis, this is not a usual movie. It's structure follows the young family's fate, but it's episodic, repeatedly fade-cutting away, using old home videos as a transition device. God, you're going to dread these home videos, capturing episodes of a happier life when everyone was, you know, alive, and involved in mundane activities like blowing out candles on a birthday cake. 

The movie has a constant, melancholic feel. It's not as downright depressing as one might expect, and every death is telegraphed way in advance and has no potential to shock you. Instead, you're put into the headspace of Carol (Jane Alexander), the mother of the family, who's stoically trying to cope with her children dying one by one, her husband never returning from work that fateful day and the town slowly getting emptier. You endure the deaths and the suffering, and you go on. What's the alternative?
In the end, Carol tries to answer that question by committing suicide with her last surviving child, but she can't go through with it. Instead, the movie ends with them all making a wish: that they might live on, that they might remember and that they, quite simply, remain. It's a much more basic and hopeful message than most post-apocalyptic story manage, even in the face of the relentless melancholy (and yes, these two words don't really go together) that pervades the movie. 

Costner himself has a small part, but it's nonetheless an important one. He plays a young father, and the baby he has with his wife is the first casualty. The scene in which he carries a little cabinet down the road to bury the baby in is absolutely devastating, and when he and his wife fire up their car to leave, while she tries to convince the onlookers that they will return - it's unusual for characters in movies to simply drop out of a story. I know this conceit only from "Contagion", but here, it works not because we get a societal drama but because the focus is so tightly on Carol and her family. 

This is not limited to Costner's character. Many of the members of the Hamlin community are dying, and all of the deaths are off-screen. Never do you see a character actually die; you only get a fade-out, a time-jump, a home video, and then we're at their burial, where their bodies are wrapped in whatever fabric was at hand, and the increasingly worn out priest is administering increasingly hollow words.
There's no breakdown of society, neither instantaneous nor slowly. Most people try to help each other, at worst ignore each other, and the two instances of looting we actually see - committed by a fat boy stealing first a few batteries and then some canned food - are pathetic rather than threatening. It's obvious that the boy will die soon, as are so many of these deaths. The sheer number of them, the normality, and that they're all off-screen, the irreparable tears they rip into the community until everyone is thrown back unto themselves, this is the heart of the tragedy here. 

I don't really know what else to say about this movie. It has no plot in the traditional sense, and it's more an experience, but one that's highly recommended when you are in the mood for it. It's a low-budget production, and being from 1983, it shows pretty heavily. But in a weird way, that meshes with the home videos, and the many at best semi-professional actors making up most of the town - and dropping out of the story as they die in droves - give this a weird charm. 

I have one final comment, and I hope this isn't glib. The movie, as so many of these post-apocalyptic stories do, portrays an attack on the United States of Suburbia. Being set in the 1980s means that we get the WASP middle class that was running the country. There are no black people, there are no Jews, no Catholics, and the one Japanese guy with his son is more a sign of the zeitgeist with its obsession with Japan rather than anything else. I'd like these stories to stop using the suburbian gaze, which is of course an unfair criticism to level at a 1983 movie, but I'm here and I'm doing it now. 

Verdict: If you're in the mood, watch it, but this will leave you pretty unhappy.


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