There is an ache at the heart of Lukas Moodysson's Mammoth, but it's a cagey malady, one that dodges simple diagnosis. For his English-language debut, the Swedish filmmaker has either bitten off more than he could chew, or he's effectively slapped the hell out of Western malaise and the vagaries of upper-class guilt. It's kind of up to you to decide.
Mammoth opens on a happy scene: a family at play. A father, mother, and daughter chase each other around their upscale New York apartment, the very picture of joy. Cut to the morning when the father, Leo (Gael García Bernal, Y tu mama tambien), has to leave for a business trip in Thailand. Things have changed drastically. Not only is daddy going away, but mommy (Michelle Williams, last seen in Shutter Island) can't get out of bed, and Ellen's efforts to coax Leo into getting under the covers with her fail. Meanwhile, their Filipino immigrant nanny, the exultantly named Gloria (Marife Necesito), is going to take their first-grader daughter Jackie (Sophie Nyweide) to the planetarium, where they will talk about the Big Bang and God.
This science vs. religion dynamic is one that parallels many of the other off-sets Moodysson puts in Mammoth. In his eyes, the modern world is off-balance and full of disappointments, and the more affluent side of it has lost sight of the important things. Leo is an overgrown video gamer whose web innovations have made him rich, and he is being trotted out to some Thai moguls as the boy genius whom they should invest $45 million in. On the other hand, Ellen is an overworked ER doctor with insomnia. Through this movie, she will busily try to save another family's child, a little boy who was stabbed in the stomach by his own mother, but she is frustrated by how disconnected she is with her own daughter. Jackie has taken to Gloria, is even learning her native language, but Gloria is an ocean away from her own two sons. She has come to America to earn money to build them a better life.
Moodysson is not content to stay in New York or with his central family. In several cross-cuts, he gives us mirror actions in the Philippines, showing us Gloria's boys struggling with life without their mother. In some ways, he leads us by the nose here, having the two sides of the world trading dialogue, making sure we get that for all the distance, some of their experiences are the same (even if ironically so). Midway, he also introduces a Thai prostitute who calls herself Cookie (Run Srinikornchot), who will add further dimension to the story. She will be Leo's temptation, and his treatment of her will be the counterpart to what happens to Gloria's ten-year-old child, Salvador (Jan David G. Nicdao).
On paper, Mammoth sounds like another Babel-esque "everything is connected" world traveler: a butterfly flaps its wings in Thailand and the wind knocks over a little a boy in New York. Or, in this case, an elephant flaps its trunk. Moodysson loads up his film with literal elephantine portents. The title refers to a pen that Leo's business partner (character actor Thomas McCarthy) gives him. It's a fountain pen with inlays made from prehistoric mammoth tusk. Leo will encounter more pachyderm references throughout the movie. I think we're supposed to gather that he's the elephant in the room, the symptom of a larger problem the Western world just doesn't want to face. Funny that Gael García Bernal has gone from playing one of Babel's would-be immigrants to basically being the Brad Pitt character from that movie.
The difference between Mammoth and Babel, however, is that Moodysson has no interest in hammering the gas pedal to the floor to speed us to his destination. He'd rather just lay the pieces down and see if we're interested in picking them up. So much so, in fact, that you might spend the first forty-five minutes or so trying to figure out where exactly everyone is and even what Leo does for a living. We are explorers dropped into Moodysson's narrative, and we're just going to have to figure it out.
Some viewers might bristle at this. Moodysson doesn't make anything clear cut. He suggests certain things: Gloria appears to be the only one capable of decisive action; Leo's foreign activities, both business and personal, are just as devastating as some of the more monstrous criminal acts that Westerners perpetrate on citizens of poorer countries; Ellen can't sleep because she can't get laid, whereas Leo sleeps just fine; everyone has (or is) a mother (including one reveal that lays it on a little thick); etc. Some might suggest that this isn't an unwillingness on the director's part to sew everything to a close, but an inability to do so, that Moodysson has attempted too much and choked on it. I wouldn't entirely shout such opinions down. Then again, the very cynical ending makes me think the filmmaker has given it more thought than that. It's so quiet in its cynicism, it almost sneaks by, but it's there.
Cinematographer Marcel Zyskind shot Mammoth with a cold, modernist eye. Everything is smooth and shiny and displayed in hyper relief. Zyskind regularly works with Michael Winterbottom, and his use of hand-held steadycam brings some of the immediacy to Mammoth that he also brought to Winterbottom films like In This World and Tristram Shandy. When a scene calls for it, the camera will linger on an actor's face, but at other times, it will probe the area, seeking out essential details. In many ways, this frees the performers to drop some of their style in favor of rolling with the moment. Bernal in particular takes to Leo's loose surfer vibe, often repeating himself as if the first delivery of a line was a half-finished thought escaping before he was prepared. For her part, Williams arrives at one of her least mannered performances. Her work here is akin to her outstanding turn in Wendy & Lucy.
Some films make you work for your reward, and Mammoth definitely asks the viewer to meet it more than halfway. Whether it's worth the effort is going to be different depending on who is sitting in front of the screen, but I for one am glad I reached for the prize. Mammoth is the kind of film that keeps playing in your head for days after you've stopped watching, revealing that you may have gotten more out of it than you initially realized.
Mammoth's 2.35:1 transfer looks great. The naturalistic lighting and real locations look crisp, and the colors and shadows are very strong. I see nothing here to complain about.
The 5.1 mix of the soundtrack has a lot of atmosphere, with different levels given to the various scenes. Moodysson uses a lot of Ladytron songs in Mammoth, and when they come on, they come on loud, so you might have to turn the film down once or twice. The globe-spanning story means we get three different languages--English, Thai, and Tagalog--and the non-English languages are automatically subtitled (though you can turn these off). These portions seem to be snippets of the full Closed Captioning, as a couple of times we get descriptions of ambient noise alongside the dialogue.
The DVD box kind of suggests that there are full Thai-language and Tagalog dubs, but this is not the case. (It notes that the English is 5.1 and then lists the other languages as if they were separate.) There are, however, optional Spanish subtitles.
The only bonus is the film's theatrical trailer.
Mammoth marks the English-language debut of European director Lukas Moodysson, and rather than go for commercial success, he has made a challenging picture that weaves many storylines and searches for some understanding of the schism between life on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Featuring a strong cast led by Michelle Williams and Gael García Bernal, Mammoth shows more than it explains, and it may not always give enough (or even sometimes gives too much), but for those who want to dig through the puzzle pieces, an intriguing picture emerges. Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.