Craig turns in a characteristically outstanding performance in Defiance, and, thanks to Casino Royale, may be the first actor ever to be taken more seriously by critics, be more likely to get an Oscar nomination for a dramatic role like this due to his performance as James Bond. Critics and audiences alike were smitten by his reinterpretation of 007, he doesn’t face the same unfair typecasting prejudices that handicapped his predecessors when it came to Awards season.
Unfortunately, despite stellar performances all around–especially from Craig, former Mr. Clark Liev Schrieber and (perhaps most of all) Jamie Bell as the three fighting Bielski brothers–Defiance is a wildly uneven movie. And that’s disappointing, because the true story it tells is an amazing one that stays with the viewer long after the lights have come up. It contains some of the most powerful scenes put to film this year (actually bringing me to tears–a rarity in itself–twice), but unfortunately they alternate with cringe-inducing scenes riddled with cliché–or lifted wholesale from other movies (Children of Men, The Godfather). There’s nothing wrong with homage (I love Tarantino), but such moments seem inappropriate here, and distract from the story. It happens too often to count, but I remain perpetually amazed at the audacity of filmmakers to intercut weddings with machine gun battles three and a half decades after Coppola did it.
Towards the end of the movie, I let myself relax and just ride with the clichés as I would in a Transporter movie, and I did indeed become more swept up in things. But I don’t expect to view prestige pictures like this–released in the heart of Oscar season–in the same way I view Transporter movies. Similarly, I wouldn’t expect Transporter 3 to move me or raise such thorny moral issues as Defiance does. The movie’s most successful moments question how much inhumane treatment people can take before resorting to inhuman behavior themselves. Early on, Craig’s character murders three men in cold blood in front of their family out of revenge for the atrocities they’ve carried out against his own family and his people. (Between this and Quantum of Solace, Craig must have spent the bulk of 2008 weighing the merits and morality of revenge–the same theme he and Eric Bana wrestled with in Munich.) In another extremely effective moment, the frail Jewish refugees–old and young, male and female–attempt to find collective catharsis by beating to death a terrified, unarmed Nazi they’ve taken prisoner. These scenes are so gut-wrenching that it’s too bad that others simply recycle all the old favorite war movie conventions in shockingly predictable ways.
Ultimately, the good moments are worth seeing the movie for–as is Daniel Craig’s tremendous performance. But too many bad moments prevent the film from being the success the performance deserves. Now I know how teachers and guidance counselors must feel about gifted students who squander their abilities. In some ways, a film that shows such great potential but fails to persevere is more disappointing than an out and out failure.
*Timothy Dalton, on the other hand, could probably play anything, but sadly no one ever gives him the chance. That’s counterintuitive to my argument, however, so I’ll relegate poor Tim to a footnote for the moment.