Film Review – Young Ones
They shoot horses don’t they? That statement is not really so much a question, as it is a declaration of fate. The idea being, if a horse breaks its leg, it can’t be healed and is thus better to put the animal out its misery. A mercy killing if you will. If something can’t be healed, it is better to destroy it. It happens then, early into the Young Ones, when a mule carrying equipment across a rocky and desert-like terrain breaks its leg and has to be put down. This starts what is ostensively an overarching theme that at times vaguely encompasses a multi-tone shifting, and confused narrative.
Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon) is a farmer in a yet-again post-apocalypse tale about the same things most post-apocalypse tales are about, survival and human connections. Unlike a lot of post-apocalypse movies, this one doesn’t give any explanation for why the world is run down. Instead, it merely opens in the aftermath of civilization, where water is scarce and of course, strangers don’t trust each other. Holm runs a farm on fertile soil, but has no water to irrigate his crops. He’s been trying to convince the owner’s of a water pumping station to run a water his way in order to get his crops growing, but has yet to convince them it’s an appropriate course of action. They remain unconvinced and insist Holm continues his job running them supplies. With a son and daughter at the farm, and a wife living in a special needs medical facility (apparently the world isn’t completely run down like in the Mad Max movies), Holm is struggling to keep himself together and on the wagon.
Everything changes when Holm’s mule breaks its leg. The incident, which leaves Holm’s son Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee) emotionally scarred, prompts Holm to upgrade to a mechanical replacement and in the process outbids Flem (Nicholas Hoult), the son of a prominent local official. Holm soon finds himself defending his farm and attempting to protect his daughter Mary (Elle Fanning), from Flem. It’s the kind of story that prompts similarities to many classic westerns, and is obviously a tone that writer/director Jake Paltrow is aiming for. Unfortunately Paltrow also seems to be aiming for a series of other movie’s tones as well, as the movie slips from Howard Hawks to stylized spaghetti western to Terrence Malick to Paul Thomas Anderson.
Broken into three chapters (three acts) we get only perspectives of the three leading men, relegating the movie’s only two females to victims and house wives. Mary plays housewife since her mother Katherine (Aimee Mullins) is in a medical facility, and the men have to do men things, like run supplies to the water owners. Katherine we learn is in her damaged medical condition due to Ernest, and in her damaged state she remains. Interspersed through all of this is the thin thread of a theme that seeks to play on the concept of shooting the lame horse. It’s a concept that seeks to elevate the movie to beyond genre revisionism, but unfortunately comes in to play as the movie is shifting tones from what could possibly be action fare.
Nicholas Hoult, who will soon be starring opposite Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road, proves himself a capable actor with a range between untrusting and honesty. Rolling from conniving to convincing, Flem has his own ideas about how the Holm family should be living. Michael Shannon gives a commanding performance that also teeters between two points, damaged beyond repair and determined to give his family the best he can. Newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee meanwhile gives a familiar performance that recalls Lukas Haas in his earlier days; uncomfortable and looking for his own place in the world. With the movie’s two women subjugated to background support, it’s hard to critique their performances beyond anything that simply states they filled their roles.
Post-apocalypse movies have long been a favorite genre of mine. They often provide a litany of storytelling possibilities as the nature of their narratives requires a story that goes past civilization, leaving convention to be circumnavigated so characters can survive outside of societal structures. But with a spat of post-apocalypse movies that range from The Rover, which I liked, to the next Mad Max due out next summer, there seems to be a lack of ingenuity in the face of open storytelling structure. What we’re getting is a formulaic repeat of what’s been done, humans have a hard time getting along when survival is hard and the rules of society are gone. Sure, that can be compelling when done right, but Paltrow can’t decide if the movie should be neo-western or human think piece. Employing film direction that shifts between The Master and any Terrence Malick film, with characters in impressionistic embrace, whispering to each other, while tracking shots in a plowed field follow a character’s escape. Pretty much everything here has been seen or done before, to more exacting, and lasting, effect.