Directed By: Lukas Moodysson.
Written By: Lukas Moodysson.
Starring: Michelle Williams (Ellen), Gael Garcia Bernal (Leo), Marife Necesito (Gloria), Nathamonkam Srinikornchot (Cookie), Tom McCarthy (Bob), Sophie Neyweide (Jackie), Jan David G. Nicdao (Salvador), Martin Pelos Santos (Manuel).
Lukas Moodysson is one of the more interesting directors to emerge in the last decade or so. His first three feature films – 1998’s Show Me Love (which I prefer to call by its original title, Fucking Amal, and is still my favorite of his films), 2000’s Together and 2002’s Lilya 4-Ever marked Moodysson as a director to watch. The films were honest, brilliantly acted, written and directed. Then Moodysson decided to take a little bit of a detour, making the art porn film A Hole in My Heart (2004) and whatever the hell Container (2006) was supposed to be. With Mammoth, he returns to a regular narrative filmmaking, and the result is a fine movie. No, Mammoth does not come close to matching the best of his previous work, and I find it odd that a filmmaker of Moodysson’s skills decided to make a film in the vein of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s Babel (mind you without the bombast), but Mammoth does some very interesting things.
In New York, Ellen (Michelle Williams) and her husband Leo (Gael Garcia Bernal) are both successful professionals. She is a doctor at a business hospital, and he has made millions with his video game company. They are both busy much of the time, so they leave their daughter Jackie (Sophie Neyweide) with their Filipino nanny Gloria (Marife Necesito), who has had to live her young children, Salvador (Jan David G. Nicdao) and Manuel (Martin Pelos Santos) behind in order to make some real money.
The action really gets going when Leo has to travel to Thailand in order to sign a multi-million dollar deal. He isn’t much of a business man, and leaves all the negotiations up to his partner, Bob (Thomas McCarthy), and what was meant to be a short trip turns into a longer one. Needing to hang around so he can sign the deal, he decides to get out of his fancy hotel for a few days, and goes and rents a cheap hut on the beach instead. There he meets a prostitute named Cookie (Nathamonkam Srinikornchot), but the relationship doesn’t develop they way we expect it to – at least not at first.
Meanwhile, Ellen is starting to realize that Jackie likes Gloria more then she likes her. She tries to take an interest, and reach out to Jackie, and even Gloria in one scene, but it doesn’t matter. The bond is formed between the two of them because they spend so much time together. Back in The Philippines, Salvador is upset that his mother is gone, and tries to get a job to make money so she can come home. When his grandmother, who means well, tells him that some kids go home and sleep with strangers, he misunderstands what she means, with dire consequences.
As I mentioned before, it was impossible for me to watch this film and not think of Babel. That was a similar, globetrotting epic that dealt with some of the same issues. Babel is the better film, but Mammoth is more subtle – it doesn’t beat you over the head with its points, simply sits back and observes.
I think the purpose of the movie is to show how everyone is exploited – particularly how the developed world exploits the undeveloped one. While I agree with this concept in theory, I’m not sure I agree with the examples Moodysson places before us. Does Ellen exploit Gloria? Not really. Gloria made the choice to come to America to make more money, and Ellen pays her well, and treats her with respect. The question becomes how much is a fair wage to raise someone else’s kid, but Ellen is not a clueless mother who knows nothing of her kids, and doesn’t care. She tries really hard, and does in fact make time for Jackie. Yes, it is sad that Gloria has to leave her children to travel to America to make money, but that really isn’t Ellen’s fault. Does Leo exploit Cookie? Again, I’m not so sure. When she approaches him in a bar, she has her eyes on him as a trick. Leo pays her, but does not sleep with her. He tells her to take the money and go home instead. Yes, Leo is arrogant, thinking that he can “save” her (not to mention that he is a rich guy playing at being poor with his whole trip anyway), but he never expects to see her again. When she shows up the next day, they spend the day together, and again he treats her well. Yes, he violates his marriage vows, but that has nothing to do with Cookie. She would be doing the same thing with someone else with Leo wasn’t there. And I hate to say this, but the casting of Bernal, who is quite good in the film, confuses matters a little. Why cast a Mexican actor to play the “Ugly American”? The only case where exploitation is clear is when it relates to Salvador, and the America man we see “save” him, the night before he is found nearly beaten to death on the street. That is exploitation, the other two are fuzzy.
What I responded to more is the portrait of the characters as sad, lonely people – no matter how much money they have. Williams is one of the best actresses in the world – pretty enough to be a big movie star, yet she prefers to do smaller films like this with interesting directors. She has a face that the camera loves, and she knows how to use it. I am always as impressed by Williams’ silences as I am with her speaking parts. Bernal, although I think miscast, makes Leo into a big, immature kid. He is well past the point where he should be doing the things he does, but because he made money in video games; he never really had to grow up. I wish Moodysson had given Necisto more to do as Gloria – as her role seems rather clichéd, and one note, but she plays it well. Perhaps the most interesting character in the movie though is Cookie, the prostitute, brilliantly played by Srinikornchot. There is a wonderful scene between her and two other prostitutes where they talk about the different nationalities of men they have been with, and how each one has their own drawbacks. She has seen it all, and it’s a sad performance, and the look of curiosity on her face about Leo is rather interesting to behold.
Mammoth ends on a happy note – the reconciliation of Ellen, Leo and Jackie on his return from Thailand. But it is a false happiness, and somewhere, I think they all realize it. Have they learned anything throughout the course of this movie? I doubt it. And that’s what makes their happiness at the end of movie almost unbearably sad.