Friday, 13 September 2013

'The Fury' Personified


A note on motion as emotion in Brian De Palma's film The Fury (1978) 
 

THE CONTEXT:
 

A father and son compete in a spirited game of one-upmanship on a beach in the Middle East.  The conversation between the two is light and vigorous; machismo and good old fashioned male bonding are the order of the day.  Out of nowhere, a suited Childress appears, immediately casting his shadow of influence over these characters, the kid and his dad.  He interrupts the shenanigans, bringing the conversation back to business; something to do with the father and son - Sandza and Robin - returning to the U.S. 

As Childress talks shop with Sandza, De Palma's camera circles the table.  Already the implication of a betrayal is here, with the movement of the apparatus giving the feeling of confinement within an otherwise wide-open space.  Sandza is trapped by the machinations of his job, his government, already closing-in on him.  As the camera continues to track, suggesting the movement of vultures encircling a corpse, or a shark moving in on its prey, Childress makes his exit.  We can feel in the pit of our hearts that something is about to happen, but Sandza seems oblivious; returning instead to his continental breakfast, while the everyday activities of the beach continue, as normal. 

Suddenly, a blaze of machine gun fire cuts a waiter in two.  Sandza is hit.  He takes cover behind an upturned table as a small army of foot-soldiers arrive in a motorised dinghy.  Childress holds the terrified kid to one side; inadvertently forcing him to watch as his father is pinned down, again, surrounded.  There's a brief gun battle; chaos and confusion in every shot.  Sandza manages to make it to the dinghy, piloting the small boat out to sea before a stray bullet hits the motor, causing the vessel to explode.  Footage from a handheld camera suggests that this moment is being filmed by someone other than De Palma.  Later, we'll discover why...
 

The Fury [Brian De Palma, 1978]:

As the dust settles, Childress has the heartbroken kid removed from the scene, still adopting the role of the surrogate guardian; a mix of indignation and concern.  However, in the next scene, we observe Childress retrieving footage from the cameraman and paying off the gunmen for a job well done.  But  Sandza survives.  Realising that he's been sold-out by his former associates (who require the kid for experiments in creating a living weapon with the power to bring an enemy to its knees through suggestion alone), Sandza sets off on a violent mission; an attempt to retrieve his son and to get even with Childress, the ally who betrayed him. 

This opening sequence is important.  On one level, it establishes the justification for this narrative - which combines contrasting elements of espionage with the supernatural - as Sandza uses his government training and his physical ingenuity to evade a series of would-be assailants in an effort to locate his son.  However, it also establishes the emotional commitment of the central character.  The transformative aspect of this quest to right a wrong will compel him to adapt to the brutal methods of these kidnappers - effectively demanding the physical and psychological alteration, from committed father to pitiless avenger - as he becomes a genuine force. 

It is this confrontation of violence - as Sandza is blinded by vengeance and the need for retribution - that pays-off later in the film, during Amy Irving's valiant escape from the research institute.  This is where the character has been placed in an effort to control her own psychic abilities, and where the connection between this character and Sandza's son Robin is eventually made clear.  In this scene - one of the most famous and remarkable sequences in the film - the deeper implications of the title are expressed through De Palma's extraordinary use of pure visual filmmaking techniques. 

For all of the protests levelled against De Palma, he remains one of the most naturally gifted filmmakers of his generation.  Like Spielberg, his ability to break down a sequence into a series of images that resonate with direct, unfettered emotion, is undiminished.  He takes this sequence - which, on the page, might have read as less than a paragraph in length - and transforms it into something audacious, almost operatic.  A scene of violence, terror and death, recorded with a poetic grace that forces the audience to question the toll that this vengeance has taken on the central character, as his need to protect his son, to restore that sacred bond, leads only to more loss.
 

THE SCENE:
 

The Fury [Brian De Palma, 1978]: 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
THE FURY ITSELF:
 

The Fury of the title refers to the volatile emotions of the principal characters, who channel their rage and aggression physically; the internal made external.  In this sense, the film shares obvious similarities with De Palma's previous film, Carrie (1976), with the resentment and pent-up aggression of the central character, both here and there, finally erupting; reaching a crescendo of violence as the film nears its final act. 

While Robin and Gillian, the character played by Amy Irving, use their own supernatural abilities as an outlet for their inner struggle to persevere (as Carrie White had done in the earlier film) it is the violence of Sandza, perfectly evoked by Kirk Douglas, that gives The Fury both its title and its lasting emotional weight.  The look on Douglas's face, as he recognises the horror in Gillian's eyes when confronted by this snarling beast of vengeance, says everything.  It represents the moment in the narrative where Sandza finally realises what a monster he's become, how his pursuit of vengeance has corrupted him.  It's the one instant in the film where De Palma out "Cronenbergs" Cronenberg; the psychological transmutation of a character made physical, expressive of the shape of rage; Sandza's body reborn from fire and bloodshed, his eyes without a soul. 

For a director so often criticised for his lurid depictions of violence, the presentation of this scene - the rage of it, and the way De Palma depicts the emotional intensity - illustrates, on a moral, as well as narrative level, the true cost of this character's retribution. 

Just as Gillian's escape conveys, in a physical sense, her own fear through the movement of the body, the violence of Sandza's assault becomes a personification of the title itself.  The violence of the scene is not simply passive, or even titillating in its depiction; it's tragic and demoralising.   It transforms the character, destroying that spark of adventure and warmth so central to his personality (as we saw it in the opening scene) and replacing it with a hollow figure; an empty vessel, desensitised and detached.  Here, the action of the opening sequence - with its betrayal, machine gun fine and documented "death" - finds its inevitable realisation in this visual manifestation of Sandza's fury.