Secrets Revealed May 4, 2021
On Nobody, The Mitchells vs. the Machines, and Stowaway
hen we first see 50-something-year-old Hutch Mansell (Bob Odenkirk), the hero of the compact new thriller Nobody (2021), he’s sitting in an
interrogation room. His face is cluttered with scratches, his eyes purply; a cigarette dangles from his mouth. He’s a vision of placid toughness — an embodiment of someone for whom physical woundedness is so familiar that it doesn’t faze him anymore. “Who the fuck are you?” one of the cops sitting across from him asks; we were wondering the same thing. The scene ends before he can answer. But once the montage that follows — a collection of all the moments that typically make up a week in his life — begins, the answer seems, in contrast to our first impression, like it could be “anybody.” Mansell, for all intents and purposes, seems a dictionary definition of an average Joe. He lives in a suburb with his wife, successful real-estate agent Becca (Connie Nielsen), and their
Bob Odenkirk in 2021's Nobody.
two kids; he's an auditor at his father-in-law’s (Michael Ironside) manufacturing company.
The central joke of the montage is that Mansell’s life is so unremarkable that you could pick any day in, say, a month-long period, and it would resemble to a T every other day of the entire month. Even what seem to be idiosyncrasies aren’t unique. Mansell forgets apparently every single time to walk the garbage to the front of the driveway on garbage day, only remembering his mistake when the truck has decided to pull away. Every morning, as he waits for the bus that takes him to work, Mansell does pull-ups on the side of the stop’s structure. A photo of his wife — her real-estate ad has been put in the stop’s adshel— stares at him. Mansell is deeply unhappy — not helped by an increasingly distant relationship with Becca, whom he hasn’t been intimate with in years, and open disappointment in him by his son Brady (Gage Munroe). His neighbor, also apparently amid his own midlife crisis with a collection of ‘70s sports cars jammed in a renovated garage, seems comparatively well-adjusted.
Mansell’s disaffections only get worse when, early in the movie, his house is broken into. Rather than make good use of the golf club he picks up to defend his property, Mansell sheepishly backs off and lets the intruders go free. He feels life has already neutered him. Such a bad feeling isn’t helped when he constantly hears from people familiar with the incident — the cops who come to help, his co-workers — afterward that if they were in his position they wouldn’t have backed off like he did.
The twist in Nobody, directed by Hardcore Henry’s (2015) Ilya Naishuller, co-produced by the John Wick series’ David Leitch, and written by Derek Kolstad (who has penned all the John Wick movies), is that Mansell’s ordinariness is actually something of a costume. This break-in might be the very thing that pushes him to take it off. Little by little, we learn that, many moons ago — and I won’t go into too many details — Mansell was a prolific assassin. A few decades ago, he decided to give it up: a yearning for domestic normalcy got too strong to bear. He let the robbers go mostly out of sympathy — he tells his brother (RZA), presumably also in the same covert professional sphere, that he noticed they seemed desperate, and that their guns, emptied, were purely props. But Mansell also took into consideration what could happen if he in any way reignited the “old” him. When Becca’s brother (Billy MacLellan) gifts him a gun at work, Mansell doesn’t take it home but puts it in an empty box in the staff lounge’s freezer. It’s too dangerous to have it any nearer than that.
But when Mansell’s daughter (Paisley Cadorath), who seems to be the only person in his life who isn’t openly contemptuous of him, says her prized kitty bracelet was among the items stolen, it’s a bridge too far. It’s the thing that unwittingly reignites those clamped-down violent proclivities. Mansell sets out to find the people responsible, though as part of the journey he also incidentally beats up, with action-movie-style aplomb, a group of drunken men hassling bus passengers. In Nobody, the whole robbery incident becomes more of a coincidental catalyst for the main story. It turns out that one of the men effectively pulverized on the bus was the younger cousin of local Russian mob boss Yulian Kuznetsov (Aleksei Serebryakov), who when not running a multi-million-dollar paint-forgery operation loves singing and dancing for the audience at his club in town.
Not a good connection to forge for this rusty killer hoping for a one-night catharsis; good for the action-starved viewer. A mob leader has plenty of acolytes, which is to say a surplus of opponents against whom our impressively efficient hero can try out exceptionally creative ways to use carefully deployed hands and feet. As noted by critic Richard Brody, though, one might notice that the movie vexingly restricts its villainous opponents to those who can be classified as “others” on whom to project delusional fears (the robbers are Mexican, the main antagonists Russian-underworld figures). It feeds, perhaps unintentionally, into the right-wing anxiety over having to take matters into one’s own hands against a stereotyped “invader” through dramatic violence. That Kolstad presumably didn’t think much about these implications does dampen some of the film’s effect.
Nobody is a predictably serviceable (action-wise) extension of the brand Leitch, also a stunt performer and coordinator, has cultivated over the years through his producing and directorial work. One can rest assured by now that they will never walk into a movie with his name attached, finish up an action scene, and think that it was lacking. In addition to being propulsively choreographed, they’re expertly stylized — never overbusily edited so as to obscure its performers' near-acrobatic accomplishments. The only flaw with them that I could find in Nobody is that many perpetuate the annoying, by-now hackneyed trope of a fistfight, shot in slow motion, being backed by a mid-century ballad. The film deploys Nina Simone, Luther Allison, Andy Williams, and, because being on the nose isn’t much of a concern, Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”
At a brisk, streamlined 84 minutes (not including the closing credits), Nobody would have the lift of a pure exercise for its makers if not for Odenkirk. He’s memorable even when stranded in a midlife-crisis story so by the books that it feels impersonal — more a narrative engine than a conceit for which we are supposed to find genuine emotional attachment. That Odenkirk’s work is distinctive shouldn’t necessarily suggest that his performance inspires a kind of drop-everything-for-this enthusiasm. It’s more that the novelty of seeing a character actor who typically plays affable everymen holds up in a movie where he quite unexpectedly, and persuasively, embodies an unlikelier John Wick-style action hero. I don’t take much to how Nobody
ideologically frames violence as cleansing — a tool through which one can reclaim their vitality and overarching destiny. (The film, for instance, becomes visually brighter after Mansell beats up the men on the bus — he even makes his family his beloved-but-long-dormant lasagna for the first time in years.) Still, I enjoyed the movie as a vehicle through which Naishuller, Leitch, and their cohort could show off their action-movie proficiency, even if the film holistically isn’t much beyond its superficial efficiencies.
he Mitchells vs. the Machines, Mike Rianda’s delightful feature debut, is set in 2020 — a year that, as shown in the film, is not beset by a pandemic but, in a more action-packed twist, what appears to be a robot
apocalypse in the making. Early in the film, a Steve Jobs-style magnate debuts an upped version of his company’s trademark phone that comes with arms and legs; you might anticipate what happens next. “Who would have thought a large tech company wouldn’t have our best interests at heart?” one character says.
The saviors of the universe from robot takeover will not be a fearless phalanx of superheroes, a faction of government agents, or any other typical world-rescuer as seen in other sci-fi action movies. More improbably, the heroes will have to come in the form of a dysfunctional family from Michigan. When what appears to be the end of the world arrives — angry robots start showering from the sky like meteors, commanded by their pissed-off Siri-like previous iteration PAL (Olivia Colman, the best thing about the movie) to rocket humans off into the sky — the Mitchells are making a pit stop at a low-rent dinosaur museum. They’re on their way to take eldest sibling Katie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) to college.
The core of the family’s dysfunction is the uneasy relationship between the very-online Katie and her technophobe father, Rick (Danny McBride). He’s gotten so worried about her career prospects as of late (she wants to be a filmmaker) that he tends to dismiss her passions entirely rather than sandwich his support with thoughtfully pragmatic advice. And when you reject Katie’s filmmaking credo, you’re effectively rejecting her. Rick and Katie have been at each other’s throats for so long that matriarch Linda (Maya Rudolph) cracks in an early scene that they haven’t had a nice family photo in a long time because every time they try to take one father and daughter get into an argument. (It’s implicitly understood that part of this discord may also be rooted in how Katie recently came out.)
Naturally, the salvaging of their relationship comes in tandem with the family’s de facto responsibility to save the planet. (They prove so good at hiding that they are eventually announced the last family on Earth.) Rianda, who wrote the screenplay with Jeff Rowe, spins an equally very funny and emotionally true story that seamlessly oscillates between goofy adventurousness (there’s a showdown with a giant, sentient, and evil Furby at a mall, for instance) and well-timed earnestness.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines is among the more distinctive animated movies of the last few years, not just visually — it resembles a combination of Pixar and claymation grafted onto the general look of Rianda’s tentpole work, TV’s Gravity Falls — but also narratively. Its overall ambitions are always clear, but it reminded me of The Muppets, for instance, in how much of its comedy derives from both self-reference and witty invocations (and sometimes complete remixes) of cultural touchstones. It has a constant busyness. It knows several of its storyline’s touchpoints are clichéd; usually Rianda has a joke ready to serve just when you think you’ve seen a certain something before, particularly when it comes to its satirizations of big tech. There are frequent allusions to gifs, memes, Snapchat filters, and viral online clips — a din of references that, in the wrong hands (like with 2017’s The Emoji Movie), could be overbearing but in The Mitchells vs. the Machines is just an additional opportunity for Rianda to charm us. (Some stuff feels a little outdated, though: a nod to the Nyan cat — who is so 10 years ago — is presented as if it was still relevant.) The movie is relentlessly playful, but I didn’t get tired of its energy. Rianda’s comic enthusiasm, sturdied by his emotional perceptiveness, is so infectious that you’re happy to be on his wavelength.
towaway, one of the first American movies in a long time to feature actress Toni Collette speaking in her native Australian accent, is a sci-fi thriller that feels too worked out — competent at everything it tries
without doing anything particularly memorable. It sits comfortably at being “fine.” Stowaway, a morality tale, follows three astronauts (Collette, Anna Kendrick, and Daniel Dae Kim) after they take off on a two-year mission to Mars. Everything seems just fine until, moments after entering the annals of space, they discover that a technician (Shamier Anderson) doing a last-minute repair was knocked out, accidentally fell inside an opening in the ship’s architecture, and thus became, mistakenly, the titular stowaway. (He doesn’t wake up until Kendrick opens a hatch and he literally falls on her.) His presence — a nuisance even if he finds a way to be useful — brings on an ethical dilemma after it’s discovered that he damaged a device on the ship that filters out carbon dioxide.
Without it, we’re told, there will be enough air on board to sustain two, maybe three people, for the timeline they’re working with. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything the company supporting the mission can do to mitigate the problem. The Collette and Kim characters, conflicted as they are, agree to one solution: that this uninvited guest will have to go, though they know that what that entails is so appalling that they speak only indirectly about what could wind up being a straight-up killing. (At one point, the Kim character — a biologist — hands Anderson a syringe filled with a mixture that would kill him peacefully as he sleeps.) Kendrick, though, is too mortified to think practically. She’s unwilling to look at sacrifice as the preeminent option; the more Anderson talks about the sister at home (he’s all she has), the more certain Kendrick becomes that there has to be something done to get everyone to Mars safely.
I prepared for Stowaway to scan more far-fetched — be more of a claustrophobic intergalactic chase thriller where the characters turn Darwinian and literally fight each other to stay alive. But it instead (I’ll admit rather refreshingly) commits to realism — it’s a sobered dramatization of a hypothetical quandary adjacent to “the trolley problem” favored by 101 philosophy courses. Which might be what makes the movie feel rather inert. It amounts to a slickly made, well-acted thought experiment stretched out to a feature’s length, effective and concise but also so inessential that I don’t think I’m going to remember I ever watched it not long from now.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines: B+