Two Animals Evoked in New Movies: A Hummingbird and a Horse

At the Movies - April 2019

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Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgard are the odd couple of “The Hummingbird Project.” Photo: Amazon Studios

‘The Hummingbird Project’
Trenchant movies about business are rare. More frequently, movies feature familiar stereotypes of the crass industrialist or the corporate giant. This seems surprising, given that American life is so bound up in “business,” but it may be because the subject is seen as not inherently dramatic. Still, filmmakers can craft incisive takes on the business world, such as “Margin Call,” “The Social Network” and “The Big Short.” A new entry into this genre is “The Hummingbird Project,” a trading tale by Canadian writer-director Kim Nguyen. It’s not a masterpiece, but it offers an intriguing premise and a pell-mell pace that makes it very watchable. (The film, now in theaters, runs 111 minutes and is rated R for language.)

“The Hummingbird Project” plunges us into the recent past of a Wall Street gone numbers-mad: the world of high-frequency trading. Second-generation immigrants and cousins Vincent and Anton Zaleski (Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgard, respectively) are players in this high-stakes game where winning is measured in milliseconds. They come up with a plan to gain just one of those milliseconds of advantage by building a direct fiber-optic cable line between Kansas and New Jersey, a scheme that could anticipate market quotes by a hair, thus making them millions. They do not want to share their concept with their company, headed by Eva Torres (Salma Hayek), a fiery and manipulative trader, so they strike out on their own with money from a wealthy investor and the crucial codes that Anton has developed.

Anton is the brains of the pair, a repressed theoretical physicist and code master, while Vincent is the motor-mouth front man, talking big with a velocity approaching their high-speed cable. Together the two push each other and all around them, including their project manager Mark Vega (Michael Mando), as they cajole landowners to cede their properties, deal with technical glitches and overcome natural barriers. Looking for revenge, Torres furiously challenges them by trying to find that millisecond – the flap of a hummingbird’s wing – by constructing a series of massive transmitters. The effort pushes the Zaleskis to their breaking point.

Unlike the aforementioned “Social Network” or “The Big Short,” Nguyen has not taken his story from real life, but instead concocted a fable for our times. What it may lack in reality, it makes up for in momentum: a chase to the finish and, more importantly, a study in the personal dynamics of Vincent and Anton. Nguyen himself has said that, in working on the film, he found he had developed “an ‘Of Mice and Men’ kind of relationship.”

That dynamic between the cousins is embodied in Eisenberg and Skarsgard. They bicker, get frustrated with each other, bond and re-bond. They are utterly different yet utterly devoted to each other and their task. Eisenberg is again typecast as the smart but insecure New Yorker, garrulous to the point of panic (see “End of the Tour” and “Cafe Society,” among others). He expertly creates that type again, a man with ambitions that turn to obsessions. The handsome and prolific Skarsgard usually portrays both good and bad studs, but in “Hummingbird” he acts against type as a dedicated but anti-social scientist, eschewing charm by performing with a bald head and lumbering gait. His Anton is just as obsessed as Vincent, but he reflects every pressure back into himself.

Less suitable is Hayek as Eva. She’s meant to be a harridan boss, okay, but she is so unhinged that the character grates. Perhaps director Nguyen meant her to be the film’s comic relief, but her character is completely implausible and, worse, she’s not funny!

Matthias Schoenaerts as Roman Coleman handles his wild horse Marcus in “The Mustang,” a Focus Features release. Photo: Tara Violet Niami/Focus Features

‘The Mustang’
One of last year’s best films was “The Rider,” a superb semi-documentary fiction about a rodeo rider deprived of his profession. Though an entirely different story and context, the new release, “The Mustang,” brings resonances of the earlier film, showing the man-horse bond developing in the dusty beauty of the American West. (The film, now in a limited run, is rated R for language and violence and runs 96 minutes.)

“The Mustang” stars Matthias Schoenaerts as Roman Coleman, an inmate serving in a Nevada prison for assaulting his wife. His only family connection is a thin one, shown when his pregnant daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon) shows up to ask him to sign a document ceding a family property.

A chance to escape solitary comes when Roman is given the opportunity to participate in an “outdoor maintenance” program as part of his state-mandated rehabilitation. That assignment requires that he participate in a wild-horse-training program at the prison. Though at first consigned to shoveling manure, he is encouraged by an outgoing fellow inmate and trick rider, Henry (Jason Mitchell), and the program boss, Myles (Bruce Dern), a no-nonsense veteran trainer. Myles sees some potential in Roman, who is ultimately accepted into the program.

Roman is assigned one of the wildest mustangs from the recent round-up, and, learning patience for the first time, bonds with the horse, called Marcus, then becomes a competent rider. His newfound industry and composure lead him to believe that he can participate in the program’s finale: an auction of the newly tamed steeds to practical uses in society and, for Roman, perhaps a new opening to Martha.

The symbolism of “The Mustang” is fairly obvious – one caged animal redeems another – but the honest, unflashy depiction of that redemption is done with such care and taste by director/actress Laure de Clermont-Tonnere (here making her feature debut) that it just rings true.

De Clermont-Tonnere (who also co-wrote the film with two others) came to the project having explored this theme before in a short film, “Rabbit,” about a therapist who entrusts a small rabbit to a female prisoner to produce a calming effect. In an interview, she said: “The goal is to reconnect, is to learn patience, to tame your own violence and anger. It’s very therapeutic for those men to realize who they are.” The film achieves this through her careful direction and Schoenaerts’ believable transformation. She and her team also have an authentic Nevada landscape and a real (decommissioned) prison in which to shoot.

The Belgian Schoenarts has made his reputation playing hard-bitten tough guys (“Bullhead” and “Rust and Bone”), and he is just as harsh here as a block of a man with a short fuse. We see him blow that fuse, as when he ends up slugging a skittish steed, but the film captures his gaining empathy with patient resolve. The climax of that conversion comes in a heartrending passage between Roman and Martha, a scene that is the fulcrum of this movie. The film does not end with a neatly wrapped resolution, but with the possibility of finding his humanity.

 

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.