Directed by Claire Denis | Written by Denis and Andrew Litvack, from a novel by Denis Johnson | 135 min | ▲▲▲△△ | On Digital and VOD
Claire Denis is having a good month. Her film Beau Travail is Top 10 on Sight And Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time, and her second English-language feature is available to rent.
This is a return to genre pictures following High Life, which most critics seemed to like a lot more than I did. This time she’s set her narrative firmly on languid with a Nicaragua-set, sweaty noir centred on journo-cum-sex-worker Trish Johnson (Margaret Qualley). She’s desperate and broke and without a passport, getting no traction with her US-based editor (John C Reilly in a stunt cameo). She meets Daniel DeHaven (Joe Alwyn), a mysterious, married Brit who she beds for 50 bucks (US), and they begin a loose, mutually beneficial relationship.
They spend time wandering around town, with Trish starting to piece together that Daniel has more going on in his professional life that he’s letting on. For instance, he’s got a gun when he says he doesn’t. And it doesn’t take long to see how she’s survived here, and how her options are rapidly running out.
But while this picture scatters its seeds of a thriller plot around, the ground is dry for a good portion of its running time before it allows anything to grow. Instead, Denis is more interested in the connection between these two damaged, possibly dangerous people, and the film leans into their poorly timed, sensual love story. There’s a lot to enjoy in that, as there is when Benny Safdie shows up in the late going as maybe the most ingratiating CIA agent ever to appear on film.
Qualley is carving out a career with a kind of fearlessness that is a real pleasure to see, and given how incredibly sex-averse Hollywood has become in recent years this film’s frank approach to nudity and love-making is welcome, though she spends a lot more of the picture disrobed than Alwyn does. Their chemistry is fine, but I’m a little unconvinced of his leading man credentials, while Rob Pattinson or Taron Egerton, both of whom were reportedly attached to this role, would’ve been interesting to see in it opposite Qualley’s elemental force.
This effort is a lot more grounded and plausible than Denis’ spacey nonsense in High Life, but her interest in genre filmmaking still feels perverse — she simply refuses to cleave to the tropes of why people like these kinds of movies. In a word: thrills. Fortunately, this time, there’s enough else going on in the movie to keep the interest, especially in what Qualley is doing on screen.