Get out your birthday cakes and photographs, we're reviewing The Bad Sleep Well!
This is a black and white japanese noir from the 1960's, so already I know some of you are tuning off. For those of you still interested in old foreign films or noir, well, you might still be turned off.
There are some strange and dirty things going on in Iwabuchi's company. At his daughter's wedding, a cake appears, reminiscent of a suicide that happened five years ago. Yoshiko, the daughter, is fragile, sickly, and needs someone to take care of her. Her brother Tatsuo is a layabout drunk but only wants to keep her safe. Nishi, the groom, may not be who he says he is. Things are only going to get worse with fraud, blackmail, and murder.
This is a movie I liked, then hated, then liked again, then kind of hated again. The title is killer and it has an intriguing storyline with a twisty plot, but it has a slow beginning and a really out-of-nowhere ending. If you can get through the exposition-filled beginning you'll be rewarded with some nice bits of intruge and plot twists, but don't expect it to have a satisfying ending. Really, the middle is the best part, which is the exact opposite of most movies.
The movie starts off at the wedding reception, and it's nice to learn about the players through the news reporters' eyes as they all rip apart the family and explain who's who, but it's forty-five minutes of setup before the movie really gets any kind of traction. When it does though, it's the best kind of noir with death and murder and characters with conflicting motives. There's a bit of intrigue where you realize some people aren't who they say they are, and I wish there was a bit more of that for some cat-and-mouse type noir shenanigans, but the plot takes a more direct twist.
The movie starts out with some really nice ideas, but doesn't act on them. In the beginning, you only here from the reporters that this family is corrupt, without any of the facts, so I was wondering if the title The Bad Sleep Well was talking about the company or about the reporters writing all these slanderous things that are actually tearing good people apart. Sadly, the question was answered fairly quickly. It does put forth some other great questions: What lengths do good people have to go to to take down the bad? Are they even good people anymore? And considering who they have to hurt in the process and the events they set into motion, is it really worth it? It's some great philosophical grey area stuff.
They introduce all the characters in the beginning in the exposition-filled wedding, but none of it takes until you get started. You do remember the characters because they're all distinct and well acted. Nishi is strong-willed and very decisive in his movements, while Tatsuo is very fluid, like the liquor he constantly imbibes, but is easily thrown into a frenzy. Some of the scenes are too slow for their own sake, but most of them are just dramatic enough to flip the noir bill.
Visually, it holds up surprisingly well for a movie from the 60's. The 60's business style is a pleasing aesthetic, and as it's a corporate thriller, there aren't too many effects heavy shots. There are however some beautiful noiry cinematic sequences steeped in shadow and intrigue. The music has some nice dramatic tones now and then, but takes a peculiarly upbeat tone near the third act. It mirrors the strange flow of the movie, which has a slow beginning, a dramatic middle, then gets strangely upbeat, and finally ends abruptly.
I have to talk about the ending. So for anyone who is interested in seeing it, consider this your SPOILER ALERT. In the end, Nishi is about to bring down the corporation and then turn himself in, but then Iwabuchi finds him out, and kills him off-screen. The bad guy wins, and though his kids disown him, he shows little remorse or regret for his actions. End of movie. So the bad really do sleep well. Wait, what? That's it?! I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Nishi to pop back up again or one of Iwabuchi's kids to turn him in, or for Iwabuchi, flooded with remorse, to do what he did to others and commit suicide, but nope. End credits. I'm really torn about this, because on the one hand, it's an ending I didn't see coming, but on the other hand, there's no emotional payoff. Having the protagonist fail is one thing, but killing him off-screen is just cinematic torture! I see where the Cohen brothers got their ending for No Country for Old Men. I want to like it for it's originality, but at the same time, I can't help feeling I want two and a half hours of my life back. END SPOILER ALERT.
The Bad Sleep Well is a real trip. It's got some juicy bits of noir intrigue and a few great questions on the nature of morality, but it's also got some exceedingly slow parts and a bittersour ending. It's definitely a movie not entered into lightly.
THE GOOD: good cinematography, great middle, some good noir ideas, great acting, nice visuals, killer title.
THE BAD: slow beginning, some long dull scenes, abrupt ending that most people won't like, very long.
THE VERDICT: $$ Unless you're a diehard noir and/or classic japanese film fan, I wouldn't bother. There's some nice bits of noir in the middle, but it's hard to get started, and the ending will leave you disappointed.
MOVIES LIKE IT: 2046, No Country for Old Men, Boardwalk Empire
ONE-SCENE METAPHOR: Nishi has a distinctive whistle that he always does, especially in tense situations, and you expect it to come into play some time, but it never does. It would have been cool if they used it somehow, like in the final chapter the bad guy hears the whistle, thinks it's him and shoots in the dark only to realize it's his son that was singing the tune, but no. Why was he even whistling? What was the tune? What a waste of a good plot point.