As Joe, the alcoholic ad executive, Brolin is a raw nerve at first—a bloated and haggard man whose smile and laugh are false. From certain angles, he looks and sounds like the young Nick Nolte: a brutish alpha male gone to seed, but not without a certain tenderness. Drink is ruining his life and estranging him from his wife and newborn daughter. We sense that his alcoholism is a symptom of long-held guilt that will be explained as the tale unfolds, and we’re more right than we could imagine. Joe finds himself trapped in a jail cell made up to look like a hotel suite, getting mysterious updates on the room’s TV about the life of the daughter that he never got to know. He stays there for twenty years (five more than in Park’s version). After seeming eons of self-pity capped by a suicide attempt, he starts a Travis Bickle-like regimen of Spartan self-improvement, winnowing himself down into a lean, mean killer, and finally escaping to seek vengeance against his tormentor.
Watch More: Oldboys (2009)
Where the film’s first half is a Kafka-esque fable of guilt and punishment, the second is a riff on the criminal revenge flick, with Joe working his way through the underbelly of a New York City that’s been reimagined as a landscape of the mind. He joins up with a drug clinic worker played by Elizabeth Olsen and slowly begins piecing together the identity of his jailer: a rich and rather effete sadist (Sharlto Copley of “District 9”) who knew Joe a long time ago, and who now lives like a drug dealer from an ’80s cop thriller.
It’s worth pointing out here that Park’s film is not an original story, but an adaptation of a Japanese comic book of the same name. Both versions find ways to visually suggest that you’re reading a big-screen graphic novel with pages that come to life. The compositions in Lee’s movie have such a painterly or “illustrated” quality that they might as well have thick black lines marking off the edges of the frame. At no point does the film try to be “realistic,” except when it comes to the strong, simple emotions that its characters feel. Lee’s “Oldboy,” like Park’s, obeys its own illogical logic (a hotel room hallucination starring Lee’s brother Cinque has the goofy randomness of a joke in a David Lynch movie). The whole thing flows as dreams flow, linking situations to other situations and images to other images in a seemingly free-associative manner.
At its wooziest, Lee’s direction reminded me of Brian DePalma or John Carpenter in nightmare reverie mode, or Alfred Hitchcock when he seemed possessed by whatever horrible muses drove him. It’s purely intuitive, at times musical, direction. The lack of a political dimension seems to have freed Lee to be looser and more (cruelly) playful than usual. There’s news footage on Joe’s hotel room TV, but when we see, for instance, scenes from 9/11 or the Iraq war, it’s not meant to drive home anything but the passage of time and its effect on Joe’s psyche. The performances are all over the map, in what struck me as a DePalma-like way. Some actors give fairly naturalistic performances (Brolin and Olsen) while others (Jackson and Copley) chew the scenery into fine shreds and then pluck them from their shiny teeth. Lee presides over the madness with a droll serenity that says, “This is the movie; deal with it.”
That’s not a bad thing, though, when you consider the current climate for mainstream American films. For people who haven’t seen the original “Oldboy” or anything like it, this will be a rare studio release that feels shocking and abrasive, perverse, and in some way new. I’d love to sit through Lee’s movie again in a theater with newbies who came to see a straightforward revenge picture starring a guy who’s been locked up for a long time and has no idea what they’re actually in for a swan dive into the toxic id. Few American auteurs are making mainstream studio movies in the vein of Spike Lee’s “Oldboy”: unabashedly hardcore genre pictures that aren’t afraid to treat sex and violence as colors on a palette, and get nasty and raw, in that seventies-movie way. Park’s “Oldboy” was no skip through the daisy field, but this one is even harder to watch, sometimes indulging in savagery that blurs the line between Old Testament morality play and straight-up exploitation. The filmmakers seem obsessed with making everything as extreme as possible, replacing, for example, a bruising bit of hammer torture with a prolonged sequence in which the hero uses an X-acto knife to slice a dotted-line-shaped pattern into a former jailer’s throat.
Roger Ebert’s four-star review of the original praised it as “the kind of movie that can no longer easily be made in the United States” thanks to content restrictions imposed by “a puritanical minority.” The same sentiments apply here, but even more so, because Park’s film came out ten years ago, and things have only gotten more restrictive since then. Plenty of international filmmakers are working in this mode—Park, Takashi Miike, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Lars von Trier spring immediately to mind—but not too many English-language directors, aside from Quentin Tarantino and sometimes Oliver Stone (“Savages”). Martin Scorsese and David Cronenberg used to make this sort of picture all the time, but haven’t in a while, perhaps because it’s just too much for some people, and “just too many” movies tend not to get made at a major studio level because the financial stakes are too grave. I don’t like or approve of everything in “Oldboy,” but I’m glad it exists. The multiplexes are filled with PG-13 movies that should have been R-rated movies, released by studios that don’t make adult-only genre films anymore. This is one such film, starring a real actor, directed by a real director. It deserves to be seen and argued about.