Last year, I trashed Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. My biggest question was simple – who is this for? I couldn’t understand the popularity, the critical praise, the Oscar wins. I didn’t get it, on some fundamental level that everyone else seemed to.
And, to be honest, I could ask all of these same questions about David Fincher’s first film since 2013’s Gone Girl, the period comedy drama, Mank, about the writing of the official greatest movie of all time, Citizen Kane. Who is this for? Why should anyone give a shit about yet another film about a tortured white cis male genius who’s biggest problem is writing a movie? According to the rest of the reviews for Mank, this film is for the critics, the movie buffs, and the Fincher aficionados. In short, this film is for me.
Mank is a film so sickeningly made for me that all I can do is tell you why that is. I’m not trying to convince you that it’s worth your time, or that it has an important moral message; honestly, I’m not even sure that it is or that it does. I’ve looked at other reviews and noticed how the writer’s language is less persuasive and more forceful: one publication said that you would have to surrender to Mank. What a weird thing to say about a movie that isn’t Martyrs, right? The language is that used when reviewers worry that a film might tank and use all their powers to try and stop that eventuality. Calm down, everyone; Mank is on Netflix, people will watch it. You don’t need to emotionally brutalize your readers into seeing this.
It shouldn’t ever be hard to recommend a film you love – I spend a lot of time on this site doing just that – but Mank is a strange story in which everything in it can be seen as extremely and of epic levels of importance, or equally silly and self-indulgent. These two viewpoints perfectly show the titular Mank: that’s Herman J. Mankiewicz, embodied by Gary Oldman, and his own self and world view. A Hollywood screenwriter who spends less time behind a typewriter and more time acting out a 30s version of Mad Men, Mank is a a drunk in the style of a more heterosexual Oscar Wilde in that he uses his weighty and enormous intellect and talents to be the perfect party guest, a quip-happy drunk who bets on the time it takes for a leaf to drop the the ground. The film centers on Mank’s writing of the script that would become Citizen Kane, while flashing back to neat little vignettes that piece together his reasons for writing a sympathetic, but largely unflattering, story inspired by William Randolph Hearst.
If there was a critics’ version of Martin Scoresese’s classic rise-and-fall movie cutout, then it is Mank. This hits so many of my buttons I’m surprised that Mike Flanagan didn’t guest direct a dream sequence. In Oldman, Tuppence Middelton, Charles Dance, and a role for Amanda Seyfried that proves that Hollywood has been using her wrong for years, Mank has some of my favorite actors, it’s obsessed with the creation of one of my favorite films (Citizen Kane is on BBC iPlayer, you have no excuse now), and it’s made by my favorite director, David Fincher.
Fincher is the main reason I love this film. While the is always an element of black comedy in his films, Mank is his first proper laugh-fest, showing that he hasn’t stagnated in the years he was away directing Mindhunter. Mank, above everything is about how nothing worthwhile can be achieved alone. It is a film so against the very idea of auteur theory that it has Orson Welles (the original poster boy for this very boyish movement) as almost a secondary villain. Fincher’s films are obsessed with how things work, whether that’s the cigarette burns at the top left of the frame (which make many period appropriate appearances here) to the disillusionment and revenge of the Cool Girl in Gone Girl, to the investigation on any one of his serial killer antagonists. Mank. which achieved it’s gorgeous look through frequent collaborators production designer Donald Graham Burt, editor Kirk Baxter, and Mindhunter cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, and a screenplay written by Fincher’s own father, prove that none of it works alone.
But that’s just my opinion. Who is this for? People like me. Which means that I have nothing but good things to say about the movie, despite its indulgences. This just so happens to be one that I get. And there’s not much better I can say about it than that. Sometimes, a movie just hits wrong, like Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. And sometimes, they happen to hit right.
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By Kevin Boyle
Header Image: Variety