Wednesday, 11 April 2012

A Midnight Clear (Keith Gordon, 1992) Blu-Ray Review

Ethan Hawke in A Midnight Clear (1992)...

December, 1944. A severely truncated American Intelligence Squad, lead by the boyish Sgt. Knott (Ethan Hawke), are billeted to an unoccupied house somewhere in the Ardennes, tasked with monitoring enemy activity in advance of a rumoured assault. Once stationed, the squad make themselves comfortable, unearthing stashed caskets of wine and sardines and lighting a log fire for warmth. Later they draw up a shift pattern for the surrounding guard posts, located several paces from each corner of the house. On the first night, German voices ring out from the forest's obsidian frontline; "Sleep well..."

What's immediately striking about A Midnight Clear, adapted from William Wharton's semi-autobiographical novel, is the youth of its characters. The oldest member of the squad, Vance "Mother" Wilkins (Gary Sinise), is only 26, and the aforementioned Sgt. Knott just 19. In an affecting flashback we see them as boys on their last night of freedom, scouring bars for the right dame to cure them of their virginity. The woman they find, Janice (Rachel Griffin), turns out to be widowed and suicidal, but rescued by these four guys whom she can surrogate for her fallen sweetheart. She makes love with each of them, perhaps aware that any day now could be their last. In this scene the boys learn not only of sex, but the weight of the conflict they are about to enter, and the causalities it has left back home. "I'll always feel strange about my first sexual experience", narrates Knott. "Masquerading as a dead boy named Matt."

Back in 1944 we observe the relationships each man has forged on the frontlines, and the secrets they guard for one another. In the opening scene Mother learns of his son's death. He tears off into the surrounding woodland, chased by Knott, who eventually finds him kneeling naked in a freezing reservoir. Whatever shreds of sanity were left in Mother are now lost, but Knott promises not to tell the others of his breakdown. Their bond is the film's most immediately impactful, but the screenplay slowly evokes fears and dreams in each man, not least the kind-hearted "Father" Mundy (Frank Whaley), nicknamed for his post-war ambition to become a priest. In many ways one could look at these characters and approach A Midnight Clear as an alternative coming-of-age movie. This idea is especially pertinent to Knott, who in one scene dissects the army's approach to classifying its dead by likening "the lost" to Christopher Robin. It is only then, and in moments where Gordon focuses the camera around Hawke's pensive blue eyes, that we consider how much his innocence has been corrupted by this cruel, remorseless war.

Gordon frames the Ardennes like the scene from a beautiful nightmare, allowing Mark Isham's ethereal score to creep out over images of snow-capped trees and slushy, well-trodden tracks. The vistas here are astonishing in their scope, their silence interrupted only by gunshots and screams (especially effective during the opening scene, as Mother's despairing howl melts together with the score). In fact, despite the power of Isham's compositions, the film is most effective in its silences, as in the scene where Knott leads the men toward two frozen soldiers - one German, one American - entwined in a final death dance, mouths agape as if reaching for the final straws of life. Silence also permeates the house's forlorn walls, which are so well peeled as to suggest they haven't been inhabited for decades.

Gordon displays intuitive restraint in the film's action sequences, especially when the troop are evading mortar shells in a high-speed jeep chase toward the film's close, but the director's greatest command (also displayed in The Chocolate War, 1988, and Waking The Dead, 2000) is in drama, and exploring the intimate moments which his characters share. There's a particularly engrossing scene which finds Mother sat before a collection of paintings in the attic, admiring their beauty and the delicacy with which they were crafted. "Sometimes I didn't believe there was any love left", he says, fighting to conceal the emotional crack which appears in his voice. It's moments like these which Gordon captures so well, and it's for those moments that I truly miss not having him around. His last film was 2003's disappointing The Singing Detective, but with a steady stream of TV work there's still hope that he'll return to the cinema. God knows, the cinema needs him...

The Disc/Extras
The restoration is stunning, presented for the first time in Gordon's intended 1.85 : 1 ratio (previous home cinema releases have been in 4:3, distorting DP Tom Richmond's exquisite framing). There are patches on the print which show some wear, but for the most part Richmond's compositions look amazing, with the pure white snow appearing more striking than ever. Played through my 5.1 speakers the sound was also crystal clear, and Isham's stirring score is well served.

There are solid extras too. The US commentary, recorded in 2002, is ported over here, alongside 23-minutes of deleted scenes which have their own accompanying commentary. I'm pretty glad most of these scenes were cut, as some feel tonally miscalculated and others - extended variations on existing scenes - work better for being trimmed down to their essentials. Gordon expresses some regret in the commentary about cutting these scenes, but he also concedes that they don't actually add to the story. The highlight of the disc is a new feature called A Winter Wartime, which is a revealing 49-minute interview with Gordon where he reveals several interesting production tidbits, especially when he tackles the issue of the film's tragic opening weekend, where it grossed (approximately) $66 due to the Rodney King riots.

A Midnight Clear is out on DVD/Blu-Ray on April 16th...

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