Movies You’re Not Watching: Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer is a difficult movie to parse. Maybe that doesn’t matter so much. It resists deconstruction not because it doesn’t care for its basic conceit or that it is hollow and idea-less. More that its singular focus is on narrative propulsion. Snowpiercer exists within a fully-formed world, one that teaches us how to watch it as it progresses, but does not slow down to make autodidactic considerations of its subject matter.

This makes Snowpiercer something of a Rorschach’s test. What kind of interpretation you bring to it is wholly dependent on your own perspective. Is Snowpiercer a damning critique of classism, Capitalism, Communism, Socialism? Or is it just an interesting concept that happens to traverse its way through these deeper philosophical ideas along the way? Asking either/or questions puts a limit on the kinds of conclusions we can come to about narrative art. Of course, the beauty of movies (and books and TV and etc) is that they can do either or both.

Snowpiercer is more the latter than the former. Joon-ho Bong’s fascination with this world is apparent from the first grim, hyper-detailed shot to the very last. There are clearly ideas in here: some big and some small. The film doesn’t linger on them too long, much like it doesn’t linger on the finer points about the how and why of the world it inhabits. We’re just told that a science experiment gone wrong has turned the world into a frozen wasteland and that the only survivors live on a train that makes a complete circumference of the world at top-speed. Chris Evans leads a group of socially-disadvantaged passengers from the caboose to overthrow the leaders at the front. There are the requisite twists, betrayals and setbacks for the group along the way. But we’re never given over to lengthy philosophizing by the main characters, good or bad. The closest we get is at the beginning of the movie and is delivered by Tilda Swinton (in her best performance this year, which is saying a lot. She disappears into her character here more effectively maybe than even in The Grand Budapest).

Snowpiercer marks Bong’s first foray into American filmmaking. Much like Chan Wook Park’s Stoker from last year, this is a major Korean director crossing over to make a big, big splash in the American film market. Bong’s movie is bigger, messier and more likely to resonate in the social consciousness than Park’s effort most likely because of its perceived pro-Socialist message. But again,  outside of the opening and closing fifteen minutes it’s hard to read much of a message inside of Snowpiercer. The movie rockets along too forcefully and violently to ever stop and make a coherent point. With other movies this might be to their detriment, but in the case of Snowpiercer is a benefit. Stopping for too long to have his characters expound on the glories of or evils of [project socio-economic system of choice here] would slow the movie to an interminable crawl. The beauty of Snowpiercer that even at two hours, it moves at a brisk pace. Sublimating the ideas and themes is smart, and will definitely reward repeat visits for even causal viewers with things to chew over and argue about.

But what is the movie actually like? It’s brutal. If you’ve watched any of Chan Wook Park’s Revenge Trilogy you have a sense of the kind of gleeful, almost casual violence that Bong is dabbling in. Snowpiercer’s violence is simultaneously cartoonish and too sharp. Moments of intense violence are broken by levity, only to be dragged down under into further bouts of ultra violence. This seems to be a common thread in today’s cinema. But even by today’s standards something about Snowpiercer’s violence is more intense, more direct. Maybe because Bong has pulled the film back just far enough from being a cartoon that the dissonance provokes a response in us, irritates us. We feel that this kind of violence is meant to be enjoyed, but it hurts to see characters killed and maimed. We want to have fun but we also want to look away, to declare it too much.

This is all the point, of course. Snowpiercer’s narrow, claustrophobic dystopia is meant to prick us into heightened state of fear, shock and anxiety. We’re compelled into forward momentum, from beginning to end a tense, gory ride. Lots has been made of the performances here and I think it’s far to say everyone brings a high level of skill to the table. Most of all Tilda Swinton brings one of her strangest characters to date as Mason, the right hand to the mysterious and unseen ruler / creator Wilford. Chris Evans tries and elevates most of his clunky dialogue but he is still, forever, Chris Evans. I love the guy but he’s always just “Himself”. Which is fine. In Snowpiercer his role as fearless leader doesn’t demand much beyond what he can deliver. Combined with sharp visuals, cleverly choreographed fight scenes and one of the stranger sci-fi concepts committed to film, it all adds up and sticks in the soft parts of your brain.

Unfortunately despite Snowpiercer’s uniqueness I doubt it will make much of a dent culturally above “cult-classic”. I could be wrong. I’m usually not, but stranger things have happened. Singular visions rarely come out of the Hollywood system, and after all of the trouble Bong went through to get final cut from Harvey Weinstein, I’m glad it’s here on American shores in its truest form. The Preachers of Genre Gospel were head over heels for this movie over the summer and now that it’s on Netflix you don’t really have much of a choice but to sit down and give it a go.

Thank me later.

Conclusion: Not That Bad