Elements of No Such Thing, as well as its predecessor; The Book Of Life, act as an eerie foreshadow in to a major event in U.S. history...
|The Book Of Life (Hartley, 1998)|
Dear Jim, it was real difficult to get a taxi to the airport because some terrorists threatened to blow up all the bridges leading out of Manhattan. So I tried to take the subway but a religious group had set off nerve gas on the train and we were evacuated before I even got ten blocks...Waiting on line at the airport I saw two men get caught trying to smuggle radioactive materials out of the country. It’s like my mom use to say; The world is a dangerous and uncertain place - Sarah Polley (excerpt from No Such Thing)
If you were to turn on the news today, 12 years after No Such Thing Was made, things really wouldn't sound all that different. It’s EXTREMELY frustrating to read about post-9/11 cinema and rarely see Hartley's name mentioned. True, Hartley’s films don’t reach the same audiences as Oliver Stone’s work or the Bourne Identity movies, but they’re still just as culturally relevant. It should also be noted that in the same year No Such Thing premiered, Hartley’s play; Soon (about the branch davidians & Waco Texas) opened in New York City as well. Anyone familiar with his work should know that prior to No Such Thing he had already touched on globalization, terrorism & the role the media plays in society (Simple Men, Flirt, Amateur & his various short films) but No Such Thing was his first "major" effort that was to reach a somewhat wider audience. Not to downplay his previous films in any way (my favorite Hal Hartley era is between '89-'97) but this was produced by American Zoetrope studios (George Lucas & Frances Ford Coppola). I'm sure Lucas & Coppola weren’t on the set of No Such Thing watching Hartley's every move because they were super invested in the film, but for a filmmaker like Hal Hartley to have his name alongside Coppola in any way is still pretty cool.
In No Such Thing Sarah Polley plays "Beatrice" - an innocent kindhearted young woman working as an assistant for "The Boss" (Helen Mirren) - the head of a major, yet nameless, news station whose more concerned with ratings & catchy headlines than reporting the real news...
There's a world of bad news out there, ladies and gentlemen, a world of bad news! All we need to do is get our hands on the worst of it, the very worst news possible! - Helen Mirren
When one of the news station's TV crews goes missing in Iceland, Beatrice goes to investigate their disappearance (her fiancée was part of the crew). After she gets sidetracked in a subplot that could have easily veered off and been a whole separate film, she discovers that they've been murdered by a depressed, foul mouthed monster (played by Hal Hartley-muse Robert John Burke) that wants nothing more than to die. The only problem is that he’s indestructible and the only person who can kill him is an eccentric doctor (Dr. Artaud) that’s locked away by the government. The monster meets his match in the form Beatrice who is the first human to come in contact with it and not be scared. The Monster sees this as a sign and enlists her help to track down Dr Artaud so he can finally end his miserable life. Beatrice brings the monster to New York City with hopes of putting him in contact with the doctor but she’s double-crossed by The Boss and things fall apart.
This is a film full of dark subject matter but at the same time it may be one of Hartley's sweetest films. In my favorite scene we see The Monster sulking by himself in a corner. When Beatrice asks him what's wrong he replies; "No one's scared of me anymore." Beatrice then cuddles up next to him and replies; "I'm scared of you" as a way to make him feel better. Robert John Burke, probably best known for his roles on Rescue Me & SVU, gives the performance of his career as The Monster. Although he's covered in makeup, Burke's performance transcends all that in the same way John Hurt's performance transcended all the make-up in The Elephant Man.
This may also be Hartley's best score to date. I’ve always appreciated his use of analog drum machines & cheesy sounding synthesizers and he's on his A-game with the score for this film.
No Such Thing stands out the most among Hartley's work even though it featured so many of his trademarks (dead pan performances, dry quirkiness, heavily dance-like choreographed movements by the actors, etc). Why was this considered a "flop" while his previous work seemed to be more accepted? Was it a bit heavy-handed at times (mostly due to Helen Mirren's character)? Sure. But her character still represents something very scary that’s still going on today; irresponsible news outlets more concerned with scaring us than reporting the news. Hal Hartley's style my need some warming up too for those not familiar with him but that doesn't mean No Such Thing should be dismissed. This film never got the chance it deserved. Given all that's going on in the world right now this is the perfect time to rediscover this film.