“War is a drug” was the undercurrent to
Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. In
Erik Poppe’s A Thousand Times Good Night,
it’s the tidal wave that threatens to dislodge maternal domesticity. Poppe’s
film screens in competition as part of the Chicago International Film Festival
and offers an interesting middle-ground approach to what one would expect from
a festival setting. There’s a distinct Hollywood-aura to its production;
centralized largely on reinforcing dimensions of maternal and paternal duties along
with emphasizing the ideal of a nuclear family. But Poppe’s film is an effort
of steady subversions where genuine effort is placed on immersing the audience
in a dilemma of moral and social consequence. Targeting the problematic nature
of media consumption, Poppe creates a layered character whose obligations rest in
photographing incidents of global concern. The hazardous nature of her work
tests her commitment to a social movement versus the concerns of her immediate
family. It’s a beautifully constructed character that anchors A Thousand Times Good Night, wherein the
success of the entire film can be placed solely on Juliette Binoche.
The picture opens with a visually stimulating sequence that sees Rebecca (Juliette Binoche) photographing the ritual of a suicide bomber. From ceremonial to disastrous, Rebecca finds herself in the crosshairs of the explosion. In what is later described as only another one of her many brushes with death, Rebecca’s husband threatens to leave her if she continues with her dangerous work. While Poppe’s subversion of gender roles may seem like a new take, Rebecca’s husband functions as a purveyor of reestablishing normative roles. The trajectory of the picture loses its way as issues of domesticity arise and Rebecca’s new maternal obligations encumber her vital spirit. Finding solace in sharing her war stories with her daughter, the film becomes a persuasive, if not obvious, critique on contemporary media consumption. Citing whatever Paris Hilton headline overtaking news regarding African genocide, A Thousand Times Good Night looks to denounce the recent slew of pictures that show disaffected teens immersing themselves in the material (Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring). In Poppe’s film, the youthful vigor of Rebecca’s social consciousness brings mother and daughter together, even if the familial and professional combination proves to be troublesome.
As fantastic as Binoche is throughout the picture, problems arise when Poppe proves incapable of melding his various thematic touchstones (familial disputes, domestic obligations, gender dichotomies, and unrelenting professionalism) with much efficiency. And when the picture begs to answer hard questions, Poppe lobbies a softball. Unlike Bigelow’s aforementioned film, A Thousand Times Good Night becomes so encumbered with its various plot points that it justifies an ending to resolve them all in the simplest way possible. Yet that simplicity is precisely what the picture harbors its greatest distrust for: media that relishes in its ability to hide the hard truth from its viewers. By becoming everything it’s against, A Thousand Times Good Night limits its scope and becomes an exercise of superficial value. We can talk about the ideals the film posits, but actually employing them? Nah.