No Such Thing (2002)

Starring Sarah (eXistenZ) Polley, Robert John (Thinner) Burke, Helen (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover) Mirren and Julie (Demon Seed) Christie

Directed by Hal Hartley

“Do you believe in monsters?”

Let me preface this review by making it clear that this is not a horror film in the usual sense. This is a faerie tale with a myriad of elements. If I had to try and give it some sort of classification, I would probably fall back on Sarah Polley’s statement to IFCTV that this is “…a monster movie with social implications”.

You’ve probably never heard of Hal Hartley. I hadn’t until I started reading about this unusual film. He is an independent filmmaker that is, apparently, well liked by critics for his straight-faced “comedies”. If No Such Thing is any indication I can see why, and I’ll definetly be seeking out some of his other work.

As the film begins, we are immediately introduced to The Monster, played by Robert John Burke (he is given no name and he is referred to as just The Monster) as he rants into a microphone detailing his disdain for the human race. It seems that he has, once again, slaughtered people (in this case a camera crew from America) who dared to enter his self-imposed isolation in the extreme north of Iceland. The Monster is a crude, alcoholic and thoroughly bitter being. He exists in constant pain. He is older than the human race and cannot die. He wants to shut out the cacophony of humanity as it drives him into rages, murdering us one by one if necessary. He also wants to die.

His utter disdain for humans is demonstrated as he wreaks havoc on a nearby village while dropping off the tape he has recorded. It is to be delivered to the network that sent the camera crew.

Cut to New York, New York where we are entering the offices of that very network. We follow Beatrice (Sarah Polley) into the offices where we are “handed off” to The Boss (a chain-smoking Helen Mirren) and her staff (One of whom is Erica “Fame! I’m gonna live forever!” Gimpel. You get the distinct feeling throughout the film that, originally, this staff played a larger part in the scheme of things.) in a meeting. Here we learn that this story takes place “the day after tomorrow” in a sort of desensitized, media driven society where terrorist activity is a day-to-day fact of life. The Boss is berating her staff for not finding the “worst news possible” for their ratings. One of the vetoed stories involves the sale of part of Manhattan to a major Hollywood studio that, coincidentally owns the network. Beatrice (an amazing example of a “true innocent”, pig tails and all), a mere intern, presents the audiotape sent to the network from The Monster (bear in mind that only we, the audience, know that The Monster actually exists). As Beatrice’s fiancé was a member of the missing camera crew she wants to go to Iceland to follow up on the lead. After some debate The Boss relents and Beatrice is on her way to Iceland.

Watching Beatrice’s pure and simple outlook on the world around her in contrast to the dark and angry disposition of The Monster as the finally meet and interact with one another is surprising. She has almost no fear of him even after he proves that he is, in fact, a monster instead of just a freak of nature. The initial conversation between the two of them is actually darkly amusing (I told you that Hal Hartley was praised for his use of comedy in his films.).

Beatrice –
What have you done with my friends?

The Monster –
I killed them.

Beatrice –
Why are you like that?

The Monster –
‘Cause I’m, ummm, a monster.

Beatrice –
There’s no such thing as monsters.

Beatrice’s apparent inability to be fazed by just about anything even after The Monster goes through the effort of trying to terrify her sparks him enlisting her aid finding the one man who can actually end his life. Beatrice, in turn, convinces The Monster to leave Iceland and accompany her in the search.

Once in New York The Monster becomes an instant celebrity against his will. Beatrice, on the other hand, begins to lose herself and get caught up in the flurry fame and attention.

The Icelandic landscape is captured beautifully in this film. The camera captures perfectly the sense of total isolation from the rest of the civilized world. The contrast between the two locations of the film definitely compliments each other as an extreme, New York and Iceland. You still believe that this version of our world really could exist (Frighteningly enough I personally don’t think we’re all that far off.). Most of the New York scenes were shot indoors.

As usual, Robert John Burke captures his role very well. The disdain and disgust The Monster feels throughout the film is truly believable. I thought the makeup effects truly conveyed an extreme age or weathering to a creature that has walked the surface of the Earth for millions of years. The rest of the cast (even the Icelandic extras) turns in great performances.

As much as I enjoyed No Such Thing I did feel that there was more to this story than was presented. It was almost as if parts of the story were discarded as unnecessary. But the “echoes” of those scenes, concerned looks from seemingly insignificant characters for instance, remained. I felt that, although not central to the story itself, some of the pivotal characters needed more background (I haven’t discussed the character that needed the most “fleshing out”, Dr. Svendsen, in this review.) However, if nothing else, these possible oversights did help maintain the illusion of a real and consistent world.

As I warned you at the beginning of this review, No Such Thing is not a horror movie; it’s an intelligent monster movie. It explores the concepts of existence and perception, collective fears and belief. There is a powerful philosophical question contained within. Do we, collectively, create the world we live in, believing things to be as they are as a whole so much that they become so. (Ask me about my philosophical argument concerning the flat Earth vs. the round Earth sometime.) But, as deep as this movie actually is, it is not difficult to follow once the story has developed. Although, if you aren’t ‘philosophically inclined’ you may be a bit disappointed in the film’s conclusion. I personally thought it fit the message perfectly.

“Let’s imagine that we’re the Monster, and that we’re capable of bringing it into existence just by will, collectively.” – Hal Hartley

3 ½ out of 5

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Jon Condit

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