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No Such Thing


No Such Thing

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In the 45-degrees-north-of-reality world of Hal Hartley's No Such Thing, hundreds die from a rise in domestic terrorism and hardly anyone raises an eyebrow. Transit delays due to subway attacks have become mundane. Even the sale of lower Manhattan to a movie studio barely qualifies as news. In such a world, monsters have a tough time staying relevant, as the older-than-humanity creature played by Robert John Burke essentially admits in the film's first line. "I'm, uh, not the monster I used to be," he says, looking like a version of Jean Cocteau's Beast that's been left in the sun a few centuries too long, and speaking into a tape recorder left behind by a camera crew he seems to have slain. Though still able to breathe fire and make an awful noise, Burke has seen better eras. The current one has reduced him to an isolated, alcoholic life on a rocky Icelandic island, highlighted only by the occasional trip across the sound to terrorize the inhabitants of what barely qualifies as a village. The attention of Sarah Polley, herself a bit of an oddity, disrupts his solitary existence. Traveling to Iceland in search of her fiancé (one of the unfortunate cameramen) at the behest of fast-talking, chain-smoking network-news producer Helen Mirren, Polley becomes the sole survivor of a jet crash, and resumes her search only after a painful course of treatment overseen by kindly doctor Julie Christie. No naïf, she's an innocent nonetheless (the ponytails act as a tip-off), and upon arrival, she begins to play Beauty to Burke's Beast, albeit not in any fashion predictable from past versions of that familiar story. Unpredictability serves as the watchword here. Even those familiar with Hartley's work might be puzzled by what's certainly his oddest feature film to date. His characters remain the same: Their acerbic shells still protect a secret hope for happiness—except for Polley, who's all hopefulness—but here they inhabit a film that's part fairy tale, part media satire, and largely a eulogy for wonder, terror, and transcendence. No Such Thing is Hartley's most ambitious film, but it's also among his most uneven, shifting away at moments when its characters should be allowed to connect, underemphasizing some themes, overemphasizing others, and letting a general clash of ideas stand in for momentum. It ultimately works anyway, thanks to memorable turns from Polley and the all-too-human Burke, but also to less concrete Hartleyisms. His mournful atmosphere, always somehow the product of impossible love, survives its enlargement to a universe of failing myth and mundane catastrophe.