The squirms said it all. At a screening of “First Reformed” this summer, an audience of fans and film critics was audibly disquieted by what was transpiring on screen.
As Ethan Hawke, portraying a Protestant priest in spiritual agony, put himself through increasingly wrenching physical punishments, the coughs, seat shifts and groans grew louder and more pronounced. When the movie opened, I gave it four stars, but clearly a number of filmgoers had their own squeamish reactions: Several readers e-mailed to express their shock that a movie I praised so lavishly could leave them so cold.
I responded with what has become one of my go-to truisms (the “No Country for Old Men” exception): Just because it’s a great movie doesn’t mean you have to like it.
And, conversely, a movie doesn’t have to be good to make you feel great.
The ‘Impossible’ dream
What promises to be the most recent example of a not-great-but-feels-great film opened Friday. “Mission: Impossible — Fallout,” the sixth installment of the Tom Cruise franchise, checks every box the series has perfected over the past 20-odd years. Cruise, now in his late 50s, gamely performs every insane physical feat he can, performing perilous parachute maneuvers, hanging off helicopters, scraping his way up a sheer cliff side and running at warp speed over London rooftops in yet another example of actorly commitment that can only be applauded with slack-jawed helplessness.
Like every modern “Mission: Impossible” movie, “Fallout” is bursting with eye-rolling dialogue, outlandish stunts and a laughably convoluted plot. No matter. Its distinctive combination of slick production values, bonkers action and consistently can-do performances from Cruise and his supporting players make “Fallout” open to criticism but impossible to dislike.
The same can be said for “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” a sequel to the Abba-tastic musical that recycles many of the original’s songs, subjects viewers to an alternately forced and sappy story, and choreography composed mostly of fist pumps and vampy disco moves. Who cares? Lily James electrifies the screen in a radiant, wholehearted portrayal of Meryl Streep’s younger self. Her counterparts — playing Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan and Stellan Skarsgard in flashbacks — are similarly brilliantly cast.
On paper, the movie — a bright, poppy pastiche of jukebox anthems, vivacious production numbers and beachy backdrops — stands accused of being hopelessly corny, predictable and derivative. On the screen, it simply works, if only by pummeling the audience into submission with infectious joie de vivre.
Audiences might have felt pummeled by the summer’s best movies as well, albeit for wildly different reasons. The aforementioned “First Reformed” — which marked a triumphant comeback for veteran writer-director Paul Schrader — and the horror thriller “Hereditary” have been lauded by critics and fans alike for their exquisite attention to craft and the galvanizing central performances of their respective stars, Ethan Hawke and Toni Collette. But even those who appreciated “First Reformed” and “Hereditary” for the way they explored character, sustained a taut narrative and established a vivid sense of atmosphere might not exactly say they “liked” those movies as much as they respected and admired them.
An emotional medium
The divide between quality and enjoyment has created a shorthand over the years, from the patronizing idea of “guilty pleasures” to a categorical divide between “critics’ movies” and “audience movies.”
But those demarcations fail to recognize that in addition to being a visual and aural medium worthy of rigorous analysis, film is an emotional medium, as well. Interestingly, the films this season that have most successfully married those elements have been documentaries, including “RBG” (about Ruth Bader Ginsburg) and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (about Fred Rogers).
The funny, observant coming-of-age drama “Eighth Grade” is also poised to be the rare movie as beloved for its sharp writing and formal beauty as for its warmth and optimistic spirit. And let’s give it up for “Equalizer 2” with Denzel Washington, which wound up being far smarter, more soulful and just plain better than anyone expected.
Pleasure shouldn’t hinge on guilt, nor should it be marginalized; rather, it’s an aesthetic element in and of itself. To deny the way a film makes us feel — whether by virtue of lofty ambitions or simple escapism and amusement — is to deny one of cinema’s chief properties as an art form. And it’s to ignore the fact that for a movie to succeed, it need only be the movie it set out to be, even one that never wanted to be liked in the first place.
For Exhibit A, look no further than “First Reformed,” which even at its most disturbing possesses the most provocative and haunting qualities of a truly great film. After the preview, a member of the audience e-mailed to share impressions of a film that shook him up in all the right ways. Almost 24 hours later, he admitted, “It’s still taking laps around my brain.”