The saying goes that you can't judge a book by its cover. Sometimes, though, you can judge a movie by its beginning. The opening scene of Beloved, Oprah Winfrey's long-awaited follow-up to the acclaimed The Color Purple, sets the tone for the harrowing, nearly three hours of footage to follow: a dog is being brutally thrown into walls by unseen hands, then thrown to the floor, where it twitches in pain, one eye dangling loose from its socket. Beloved treats its audience much like that dog. Random acts of violence, without setting or explanation, turn what could have been a powerful and thought-provoking movie into a desensitizing haze of bloody images. Director Jonathan Demme is best known for Silence of the Lambs, the grisly Jodie Foster thriller that swept the 1991 Oscars, and like that movie, Beloved is an unflinching look at the atrocities desperate people commit upon one another. Demme (and Toni Morrison, author of the book of the same name and close friend of Oprah herself) are here specifically interested in the life-shattering results of slavery in the 1850's and 60's. Winfrey plays Sethe, an escaped slave who lives in the free state of Ohio in near-seclusion with her two daughters - one which happens to be the ghost of the toddler Sethe murdered nearly twenty years earlier. Obviously, then, this is not a movie for the squeamish - the assault on the dog is followed in rapid order by a rape scene (shot from the point of view of the pregnant victim), and halfway through the movie comes probably the most unsettling depiction of matricide ever shown in American theaters. Unlike The Color Purple, however, which dealt with similar themes of pain, loss, and redemption, Beloved makes no effort to explain itself to its audience - even let it experience emotional connections between the characters. Early scenes between Sethe and her lover Paul D (Danny Glover), for example, which could have established a necessary intimacy between the two, are instead inexplicably shot with each character speaking directly to the audience. Demme seems to have forgotten that we must feel for his characters before we can feel their loss; otherwise, the gruesome scenes that follow seem like outtakes from a bad horror film (Urban Legend, anyone?) and the audience simply does not know how to respond. Many people in my screening were whispering in bewilderment or outright laughing at scenes Demme obviously meant to be heart- wrenching. Demme has further saddled his movie with one of the most unbelievable characters found in a drama in a good long while. The title character of Beloved, played with scene-chewing abandon by Thandie Newton, has reincarnated the dead child's soul into a body the age Beloved would be had she lived. Beloved, who first appears on-screen in full mourning and (again, inexplicably) covered in bugs, must learn all the things she was denied in life, like how to walk, how to eat with her mouth closed, and - eventually - how to sleep with and get pregnant by her mother's lover. Newton's idea of, excuse the pun, fleshing out her character involves a lot of drooling, spastic facial movements, and compulsively attacking people and taking off her clothes. Jerry Springer would love Beloved. This isn't to say that everything in Beloved is wretched. Oprah gives a strong, remarkably restrained performance as Sethe; I wish she would venture away from her talk show and into dramatic roles more often. And the relatively unknown Kimberly Elise, playing her (living) daughter Denver, is genuinely astonishing. At the beginning of the movie, Denver seems like a sullen, high-strung brat - she pitches a tremendous fit when Sethe brings Paul D back to their house, and Sethe has to eventually physically remove her from the room. But Denver is an intelligent, self-aware woman who, unlike any other character in the movie, actually learns from her mistakes and the situations she finds herself in. Both character and actress deserved a better movie than this. Beloved had all the right elements going for it: Oscar-winning director, Pulitzer-prize-winning novelist, and the Queen of All Media to boot, and its very incomprehensibility and condescending attitude will probably snag a few Oscar nominations. But with this much talent at work, we should have seen a better, more honest, and ultimately a more human movie than Beloved turns out to be.
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