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Stop the Punishment! Why I Walked Out of ‘The Painted Bird’ (Column)

Prompted by the VOD release of a film he couldn’t stomach, Variety’s chief film critic explains why there’s no shame in giving up on certain movies.

The Painted Bird
Courtesy of Celluloid Dreams

I have a friend who loves to walk out of movies. He’ll give almost anything a try, but he knows his taste and can tell when he’s seen enough. It’s almost a matter of pride for him to cut bait at a certain point during the screening, once he has determined that the film is only going to disappoint him further.

That’s one approach, like the crowds who duck out of Broadway shows at intermission. Not me. I often describe myself as a “cinemasochist,” by which I mean that I’m game to suffer through nearly all movies, no matter how long, boring or bad they are out of some mixture of curiosity and duty — the exception being at film festivals, where I figure that committing to a dud means potentially depriving myself of the opportunity to find something better screening in another theater.

As a film critic, it’s my job to watch whatever comes my way, after which I can have my revenge by writing a review that steers future audiences away from the movies that would be a waste of their time. Still, I know plenty of people who have never walked out of a movie. Maybe you’re one of them.

Even cinemasochists have their limits, and I reached mine during a press screening of “The Painted Bird” a few months back (the film was released on VOD Friday). Perhaps it would be more appropriate for me to identify as a “cinemoptimist.” You pretty much have to be in order to do this gig, for which hope springs eternal: Every new film is a potential treasure waiting to be discovered — and I can’t be sure till the end whether the director has pulled it off.

As a result, I can count on one hand the number of films I’ve walked out of. The first was a movie called “John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars,” at a screening where the director was supposed to do a Q&A afterward. I just couldn’t take it. Several years later, I gave up on “Control,” a pretentious and ponderously obvious portrait of suicidal Joy Division singer Ian Curtis that hit every beat of the musical biopic genre so predictably that I didn’t have to watch it to know how it would unfold. The next will irk Marvel fans, but I couldn’t get past the opening credits sequence of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (which had already managed to cutesify my favorite song, “Brandy” by Looking Glass), as Baby Groot dances to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” while the ensemble fights a space alien in the background. I’d enjoyed the original, but the Guardians had clearly gotten too cool to care, so why should I? Then there was “Hard to Be a God,” a grotesque, vaguely Terry Gilliamesque Russian sci-fi film that wallows ankle-deep in mud and every kind of bodily fluid — snot, piss, excrement and phlegm.

And now “The Painted Bird,” which posed an entirely different hurdle. With a running time of nearly three hours, the film is a veritable marathon of miserabilism, shot in black and white, which drags a nameless (and nearly wordless) child — who’s either Jewish or Roma — through a series of increasingly unpleasant situations.

I had reason to be hopeful going in. “The Painted Bird” was adapted from an acclaimed (albeit controversial) World War II novel by “Being There” author Jerzy Kosiński. Writer-director Václav Marhoul had enlisted the participation of Harvey Keitel, Udo Kier, Barry Pepper, Julian Sands and Stellan Skarsgård — all actors whom I admire. The project premiered in competition at the Venice Film Festival, where it earned a cautiously appreciative Variety review from Guy Lodge, who warned, “The extreme lashings of suffering and sadism shown here are scarcely ameliorated by the exacting beauty of their presentation.” And it went on to be short-listed for the best international feature Oscar.

Still, I should have known from the opening scene, in which bullies catch the boy running with a ferret, beat the child and set the poor animal on fire. If gratuitous displays of cruelty are tough for you to watch, that introduction serves as a clear warning of what lies in store, and I should have taken the film’s cue and ducked out then.

Instead, I stuck with it for another hour, as the boy goes on to discover his guardian’s lifeless body. Their cabin catches fire, and he is forced to find the nearest town, where the suspicious locals abuse the kid and sell him to a witch. The old woman then drags him to the middle of nowhere, burying him up to his neck, so that menacing black birds can peck at his skull.

I was encouraged by the introduction of Udo Kier, who plays an ornery miller willing to shelter this feral orphan for a time. This too quickly turns violent, and ends with Kier’s character gouging a man’s eyes out with a spoon. Skarsgård appears a short time later as a Nazi who volunteers to execute the boy. But the final straw for me was a scene in which Jewish prisoners manage to escape a train bound for a concentration camp, only to be gunned down by German soldiers. A frantic survivor clutches her baby to her chest as the armed men torment her, firing at the desperate woman’s feet before shooting her in such a way that the bullet pierces both the infant and its mother.

By this point in the film, I could make out the pattern: “The Painted Bird” amounts to an episodic collection of such vignettes, each one more horrible than the last, presumably adding up to an indictment of all that is awful about human nature. I didn’t care if this was based on a famous novel. Director Marhoul’s adaptation felt like the worst kind of exploitation movie — one masquerading as respectful art cinema, while reveling in the sheer nastiness of it all — and I’d had enough.

On my way back to my car, I called a friend who had seen the entire film, and he corroborated my suspicions, confirming that things only got worse from there (spoiler alert, from someone who hasn’t seen the rest of the film himself): I had managed to avoid a scene of bestiality with a goat, whom the boy later decapitates; a situation where Keitel hands the kid off to Sands; the rape that ensues; and an ugly encounter where the pedophile is dragged into a pit of rats.

Mind you, I’m not squeamish and have seen far worse things on screen before. War films can be especially brutal. Still, I appreciate the way that Elem Klimov’s wrenching “Come and See” and the more recent, Auschwitz-set “Son of Saul” — to name two examples — have forced me to examine ugliness where I might otherwise turn away. Horror movies do that, too, and some — such as Eli Roth’s “Hostel” and Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” — make us complicit in the violence, indicting audiences for being drawn to such material in the first place.

And yet, in this context, I drew the line. With “The Painted Bird,” Marhoul seemed to have taken a position of moral superiority even as he delighted in confronting audiences with these horrors. Although such provocations can be instructive — testing our boundaries, as they do in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s notorious “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom” — I rejected the almost sadistic way in which Marhoul presents them. You might react otherwise. Just because I couldn’t take it doesn’t mean the film isn’t worth seeing. “Your mileage may vary,” as the saying goes.

But by walking out, I was practicing one of the two all-important powers that all moviegoers possess. First is the freedom to choose what you see. If a film doesn’t interest you, the easiest and most effective thing to do is not to watch it. I may consider “Salò” and “Schindler’s List” and “12 Years a Slave” all to be masterpieces, but they are undeniably tough to sit through. If these movies are too daunting for you, no one’s forcing you to watch them.

Wait until you’re ready. I did that with “Clockwork Orange” as a teenager: The rape scene, set to “Singin’ in the Rain,” was too much for me at 17, so I turned off the film and came back to it as a senior in film school. For the longest time, I knew better than to attempt Gaspar Noé’s “Irreversible,” a brutal revenge tale that unspools in reverse, back to the terrible attack that instigates everything. The film’s reputation had me convinced that I could go to my grave without introducing those images into my psyche. No one obliges you to see any film. It’s healthy to know your limits, and more important still to enforce them. Maybe you’re just not in the mood. You can have any reason you want not to watch — or none at all.

The second power is even more important: You can veto a movie at any point. There’s no such thing as a captive audience — or a passive viewer, for that matter. You can close your eyes, change the channel or make for the exit if necessary, taking control of the situation back from a movie that has betrayed you.

Why is it that so challenging for most audiences? Few people feel obliged to finish reading every book they open. But with movies, we often find it hard to stop. Maybe it’s because most films take just two hours of our time (“The Painted Bird” is more demanding, given its 169-minute length). Going to the cinema is not only an expensive habit but a time-consuming one as well. Once people have committed their hard-earned money to a ticket, they typically stay put, no matter how angry the experience makes them.

With Netflix, the decision to veto is far easier: If the movie doesn’t grab you early on, you can give up and look for something more compelling — which is why so many of the service’s top-performing titles start with a hook. In theaters, directors don’t have to seize the audience’s attention in quite the same way, nor do they have to keep folks riveted with every scene — although a growing number of Hollywood blockbusters have adopted this technique. That’s the unfair burden put on films shown on television, where viewers can flip channels at any point.

As someone who prizes the experience of watching movies in theaters, I find that television and digital platforms dilute the kind of commitment it takes for audiences to see movies. By making a choice of what to see, actually going to the theater, buying a ticket and dedicating the time, we mentally orient ourselves to engage with a film in the optimal way. But the power remains in your court, and once you’ve taken those steps to experience a film, it’s not only your right to walk out, but it means something — a statement of sorts: You gave the movie a chance and it betrayed that trust.

I often encourage people to try movies that they might reach beyond their comfort zone, and there’s something to be said for remaining in your seat, hoping the film can redeem whatever it may have done to disappoint you. But there’s no rule that says you have to stay put, just as there was never any guarantee that you would make it to the end of this essay. Think of this as a reminder — or else a kind of permission — to the cinemasochists among us that the option exists to walk out.