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Exit Strategies

Decision to Leave and White Noise

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DECISION TO LEAVE. Park Chan-Wook's Oldboy (2003) lives on the not-so-short list of movies a listicle might reference as impossible to watch a second time. It is, as a relatively unflappable friend intoned years ago, devastating. But, like all of Park's work, it also bears the marks of a master: While sometimes hideously violent and undeniably tortured in its narrative, it is also nearly aesthetically perfect, a breathless but measured 21st century thriller with exquisitely painful decay in the chambers of its heart. While I haven't made a proper survey of Park's entire body of work, Oldboy served as an entry point — it came at a time of life that was particularly conducive to psychological spelunking and the exploration of difficult, often morally ambiguous cinema and literature — and stands as the writer/director's totem. Undeniably modern while also classical in its meticulousness, the movie presents a conundrum to the casual or easily disturbed viewer: Should I be looking at this? Having looked at it, will I be irrevocably changed? (Fans and detractors alike might reference Takashi Miike's 1999 Audition (1999), Daniel Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream from 2000 and Gaspar Noé's Irréversible from 2002.)

The suggestion that a collection of illusory moving images should be responsible for permanent neurochemical alteration may be hyperbolic, especially to those of us for whom its simultaneous hideousness and beauty soothes, just as it torments. The fact remains, though, Park is among a small circle of contemporary directors who can marry the deplorable and the sublime with such care and consistency.

Park's latest, Decision to Leave, adheres to the apparent tenets of his self-imposed artistic principles, while also excising some of the more lurid stuff, as if in a winking challenge to those who would question or decry the violence or sexuality of his work as a whole. As in many of his movies, Decision to Leave has a love story at its center — or an internecine series of love stories, or a love story challenging preexisting relationships — which foments violence and dissolution. This time around, though, Park allows much of the mayhem to occur offscreen, even going so far as to have one of the main characters express aloud his fear of the sight and smell of blood, and to have a sympathetic listener subsequently, literally wash the gore away from a crime scene.

Jang Hae-joon (Park Hae-il), a Busan based detective, finds himself assigned to the case of a man who has fallen to his death while mountaineering. An insomniac whose career is in geographical conflict with his wife's, Jang's doggedness competes with his loneliness as he begins to both suspect and become infatuated with the dead man's widow, Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei). As the case progresses, their relationship deepens to the point of intractability, only to resume under complicated but chillingly similar circumstances in the sleepy seaside community of Ipo, where Jang's wife is a nuclear scientist.

With co-writer (and frequent collaborator) Jeong Seo-kyeong, Park uses a murder mystery template to examine the viscera of infatuation, obsession and love. Like most of his/their movies, Decision to Leave is a finely observed romance, replete with murder and deception. And like all the rest, it is a cinematic wonder, incorporating dazzling technique (intricate camera moves, seamless visual effects) to serve a story that, while manifesting in maybe outsized, outlandish actions, is in essence entirely human, even relatable. And, in self-imposing restrictions on the luridness of his images, Park has rendered the story somehow even more immediate and ephemeral. R. 138M. STREAMING.

WHITE NOISE. Though I've read Don DeLillo's White Noise, I still remember it more as something one "should" read. By that I mean I can recall the satirical tone, the bored cultural claustrophobia and interpersonal distance, but I would be hard-pressed to offer an accurate synopsis. Noah Baumbach, on the other hand, being an apparent acolyte, could not only recount the point-by-point minutiae of the novel, but has recast it as his most ambitious, perhaps least approachable work to date.

In a not-that-cartoonish Ohio of 1984, J.A.K. Gladney (Adam Driver) teaches Hitler Studies (to much acclaim) at the College on the Hill. With fourth wife Babette (Greta Gerwig), he co-parents four children (three from each spouse's previous marriages) and struggles with the mundanity and complexity of modern American life. And then there is a train accident, resulting in an airborne toxic event, which precipitates a brief diaspora and stunted exploration of the fear of death.

Driver is perhaps our most capable contemporary actor at rendering stagy, completely unnatural dialogue as though it might actually be uttered by a human, but here, even he struggles to translate airless novel-isms as speech. Gerwig rises to the occasion, as do the undeniably talented, well-directed actors playing their children (Raffey Cassidy, May and Sam Nivola) and Don Cheadle as a fellow professor trying to make his mark with his study of Elvis. Baumbach's control, his construction of a pointedly imaginary past, is unassailable from the technical perspective, but still, it all left me wondering, "Why this?"

The LCD Soundsystem music video that serves as the backdrop for the end credits suggests a different movie altogether, one with the same cast and crew but that might have been more fun and, I hesitate to say, interesting. R. 136M. STREAMING.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

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For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema (707) 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre (707) 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre (707) 822-3456.

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