Reviews Short Narrative

White Castles (2020) – 3.5 stars

Director: Noah Namgoong

Writer: Noah Namgoong  

Cast: Mason Bosworth, Justin Texeira, Jasper Salomon, and Jennie Elise Mai

Running time:  22mins

Nobody gets out of here alive. The Fates are constantly spinning, measuring, and cutting the thread. We all have an atavistic, evolutionary impulse to view a young life cut short, a failure to fulfil a human being’s potential, as the essence of tragedy. Such a tragedy is the subject of Noah Namgoong’s intelligent if convoluted short feature, White Castles. The film is part road movie, part Western Romance, and part celebration of American exceptionalism.

We follow a trip taken by two twenty-something brothers – Ernest (Mason Bosworth) and George (Justin Texeira) – and their best buddy, James (Jasper Salomon). The film reveals the tragic element of the journey pretty early in proceedings, as we learn that Ernest has a terminal illness, and does not have long left – suggesting what we are watching is some kind of last rite for him. The ensemble work is first class – the way that Bosworth, Texeira and Salomon develop their characters is exceptionally well done. Bosworth is good as the hero bravely looking death in the eye, but, for me, the stand-out is Texeira as the responsible but conflicted (no wonder given the ending in store) elder brother.

Namgoong combines footage of the road trip with flash backs from the group’s recent past and ancient (1990s) home movies featuring Ernest and George with their mother around the age of four or five. An outstanding feature of White Castles was the brave decision to use historic home movie footage – this turned out to be an effective tool to provide depth to the siblings’ relationship. I do not know the provenance, but the director managed to find material that looked as though it was a recording of the actors’ younger selves – fine production work. It helps build the familial themes in the narrative in particular, giving us an emotional reference point for the importance of the mother, who is a constant reference point in the conversations which take place in the present day.

We also learn that our protagonists were in a band – the quirkily named Intergalactic Shish Kebabs. Surprisingly, given their name, the band’s musical genre is not garage, but more the kind of feel-good easy listening beloved by TV soap producers. We see footage of the band performing in the street, which is a nice touch, as even though the performance seems pretty obviously dubbed, the musical role that each member takes reflects aspects of their character as the storyline develops – James on drums, George on lead guitar, and Ernest on lead vocals.

Music of a similar style pervades the whole of the movie – the implication being that we are listening to music made by our protagonists (though the final credits attribute the musical score to Paul Tapia, Sugarpit, and Chris Moon.) Namgoong takes us from the street performance to a series of scenes that could fit smoothly into a K-Pop video – we see the guys, I believe the phrase is, goofin’ around – piercing each other’s ears, giving the finger to an unseen someone – all good wholesome group bonding stuff.

Eventually the boys pull into a diner, and it is while ordering their food that we learn that Ernest has a terminal illness – the only prior indication of anything untoward having been that he coughed on an occasion when he was lighting a cigarette – and that Ernest claims that he took up smoking to please George, his elder brother. The viewer is asked to connect the two pieces of information and conclude that Ernest’s illness is smoking related, but also that he might have a slightly strained relationship with his family. This is further alluded to when we learn that Ernest has not been in contact with his mother for some time, and how troubled their relationship has been.

The idea is developed with an extended sequence of the home movie footage. During the diner scene, the director shows skill and subtlety – as the conversation becomes more fraught and existential the volume of the banal background conversation of the staff and other customers rises in volume – to great effect. Eventually, a distraught Ernest runs off into the night. Namgoong dabbles in Magic Realism, as Ernest encounters some kind of street party and meets a confiding and empathic angel (Jennie Elise Mai). In tune with the rest of the cast, Mai puts in a fine, enigmatic performance as the angel of the party. Full credit to the director for trusting his actors and coaxing such memorable work from them.

The party and the spell are broken by a police siren. Ernest is reunited with George and James – they go off to spend a night under the stars getting drunk on Red Velvet – a drink I am not familiar with, but which sounds fun. At daylight, they are back in the car and Ernest leaves a long goodbye phone message for his mother in which he recites a poem which has a couplet about castles being broken and black but over the hill there are white castles.

Namgoong shows real talent as a scriptwriter – the storyline flows well; the anecdotes are believable; and the dialogue feels authentic. The filmmaker also pulls off the rare feat of having an actor recite a poem, and a lengthy one at that, without the scene dipping in momentum, and losing the viewer. The poem is not referenced in the credits, so I am assuming it was Namgoong’s own work, but it was certainly memorable and resonated with this viewer.

The car arrives at some awe-inspiring area of natural beauty under a celestial blue sky – our protagonists climb up toward a ridge (The Hill). The scenery is emphasised by Shuyler Yager’s cinematography, which is sharp and well-achieved. Just before they reach the ridge, Ernest turns to George and asks why George and James were doing this for him. All three hug and George responds with an aw shucks least we could do comment. This is a beautifully realised moment and Namgoong has the viewer admiring James and George for their organisation of a beautiful trip for a dying friend and brother.

We are swiftly wrenched from this warm feeling of a tender goodbye, however, when the director gives us something extraordinarily unexpected. I try not to reveal a turn or a denouement ending of a film to our readers but what Namgoong gives us in White Castles is so remarkable it would be hard to critique the work without a detailed analysis of its final scene. If you do not want to know, please skip to my concluding paragraph. Our assumptions as to exactly what the this was that George and James were doing for Ernest were a long way off – and the favour being asked is far graver than a fun little cross-country drive. Ernest walks down the hill ahead of George and James, as the former takes something from his coat. A single shot rings out as the camera cuts to the clear blue sky. The viewer is left stunned by a startling, Steinbeckianconclusion.

One of the pleasures of reviewing films from across the globe is that they give one a glimpse of other cultures and approaches to living that differ from one’s own and then make one question one’s won cultural assumptions. While watching White Castles, it struck me that this was a film that surely no European or British director could have made – it is a quintessentially American film. Near the start, as they ride in their car, the protagonists sing a loud and celebratory rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. In Europe, singing the national anthem as you go on holiday would be taken as a marker of the crazed ideologue – yet Ernest and his companions are portrayed as regular Joes. I referred earlier to the film as a Romantic Western and by this I meant that, as the ending showed us, George as the rugged individualist taking responsibility for ending the life of his brother and, presumably, saving him from a journey into pain, acted by himself and took responsibility for his own actions.

George is shown pre-empting the effete medical establishment with its pain killers and bureaucracy. There is a chance a European director might have gone down the existentialist route but the method that George naturally and easily chooses is, I would also think, uniquely American – the gun. A single gunshot is the solution to all life’s problems. Still, a European director, Jean-Luc Godard once opined that all you needed for a movie was a girl and a gun…

The are many things in White Castles to enjoy. With that being said, there are still rougher edges which need noting for the artists behind it to move forward. For example, while the editing is competent though I would suggest that the tricksy stuff with split screens during the band sequences was ill-judged – it came across as trite.

At the same time, the film’s credibility is damaged more than a little by the portrayal of Ernest as a young man who is terminally ill. While he puts in a good performance in general, Bosworth looks in robust health throughout. Sure, he has a couple of coughing episodes, but these are polite, timid efforts – not the hacking, retching of someone whose Thread of Fate is about to be severed. As the film proceeds, we see him roll down a hill, sprint off into the night, and get drunk – all without any noticeable adverse effects.

It is a weird failure that, combined with the decision to insert a boy band video with TV dinner lounge muzak, drastically handicaps a film that might otherwise have been a contender for an IFL award – and explains my slightly miserable rating below. With that being said, despite White Castles not working in its totality as a functioning work of art, Namgoong has achieved enough in fashioning the movie’s constituent partsto be rated as an exciting, emerging talent.

On a final and more positive note, it was refreshing to see American men talking so openly and frankly about their relationships with their mother – I think it would be a surprise if a European director, certainly, a British one would have their male characters do so. Who knows, maybe Ernest’s and George’s mother, who is loved but is always absent and missed, stands in for the caring, nurturing welfare state which the rugged individualism of the US would never allow to be born? Thanks to Noah Namgoong for provoking these questions – and apologies for the 3.5 stars.

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