Early in Anton Corbijn's stark black-and-white Joy Division biopic Control, frontman Ian Curtis (astonishingly well-portrayed by the angular, haunted Sam Riley) is shown walking down the streets of Manchester, sporting a overcoat with "HATE" painted on the back, while the soundtrack rumbles with the opening passages of Joy Division's "No Love Lost." At the end of the route, Curtis doffs his coat and sits down at an office desk, ready for another day of finding jobs for the disabled. In that one moment, Corbijn and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh precisely capture what forged Curtis: the bleakness of a rusting industrial city, the angry promise of punk, and the exhausting reality of domestic responsibility.
But the problem with Control—along with nearly every other attempt so far to dramatize the Joy Division story—is that the details of Curtis' life and death aren't as interesting as they seem. Born and raised in Manchester, Curtis was an aspiring poet and civil servant who married young, was inspired by Sex Pistols to join a local band, had an amazing three-year run of music-making, developed a form of epilepsy, cheated on his wife, and then hung himself the night before Joy Division was scheduled to leave on a U.S. tour. Corbijn spends a lot of time on the epilepsy and the affair, and devotes almost the entire final hour of Control to the two-week wallow leading up to Curtis' suicide. What Corbijn doesn't get is any kind of reasonable explanation for how such a normal-seeming guy and the three moderately talented lads he shared a stage with managed to write and perform songs as shattering as "Disorder," "She's Lost Control," "Transmission," and "Love Will Tear Us Apart." Something reached down and touched them. But what?
Corbijn and Greenhalgh can't shoulder too much blame for not answering what may be an unanswerable question, but they do deserve to be rapped for wasting the kinetic rush of Control's first hour on a second half so turgid that it would verge on overkill even at half the length. Riley makes a perfect Curtis, and Corbijn's finely shaded recreations of classic Joy Division performances are so exciting that the movie could've been nothing but fake concert footage, and it would've been every bit as moving as the filmmakers intended. Instead, Control piles on argument after argument between Curtis and his wife (extra-dowdy Samantha Morton), and scene after scene of Curtis moping in the corner. The story of Control's creation is the story of great potential, squandered. Joy Division fans should be able to relate.