Nicholas Goodchild

Historic and Pared Down


29 March 2011 by Nicholas in Films

Limitless stars Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro in a thriller that owes a thematic debt to Flowers for Algernon and features some interesting visuals. Although the plot appears to be familiar at first blush, it unfolds in a thoroughly modern and materialistic way. This is about the delights of knowledge or the benefit of wisdom, but about the pursuit of excess and riches. From being far baser and less noble in its aims the film gains a certain edge and realism. While this may sound like something that a moralistic ending could be tacked onto, the film treads a far more ambiguous path.

That is not to say the film is a character piece about moral ambiguity and people interacting. Far from it: it is a visceral film that employs effects to act as shorthand in telling the story. The flashiness of the effect is to induce and suggest a mood, a heightened sense of being and a different reality. But it is also mindful of the fact it has to look good. To understand the effects we must touch upon the premise of the film: a failed writer takes a drug that allows him to better utilise his knowledge and intelligence to accomplish far more than he should be able. When he takes the film the colours of the film go from being blue and washed out (almost monochrome and distinctly cold) to being saturated and at the red end of the spectrum (suggesting hyper reality and warmth). To show the passage of time, but also journeying and travelling, the film employs a sort of speeded up tracking shot that is one part montage and one part cgi trickery. I actually really like it, I find it quite effective if a little showy. It reminds me most of the tracking shot in Zodiac where the city rebuilds itself.

The film is well acted and none of it particularly jars in relation to its central concept or execution. The film moves from wish fulfillment to escalating level of threat (from multiple sources, which is a nice touch) to action and reaction. The clunky moments in the trailer are oddly missing in the cinema release (showing a late tweaking?) and side threats are played up at the expense of what you may expect to be the central conflict within the film. Often the film pushes against our expectations as an audience and goes in directions other than those we expect, but it also plays to genre conventions and features a lot of very well executed cliches. That both of these dichotomous elements exist within the same film and don’t seem at odds is a sign of the strength of direction and focus but also symptomatic of the underlying nature of the story. It’s about contrasts and the miraculous and mundane. The bleakness of reality and the unreality of escape. The mediocre and the magnificent.

The film opens with Cooper’s character at a low ebb, he is in a dissolving relationship and has no money. At no point is he presented as a particularly admirable or likable protagonist, which is one of the film’s braver points and inherent strengths. The most heroic and noble characters are relegated to supporting status, with the main protagonist and antagonists all having multiple motivations and none of them are completely evil. The protagonist himself is a hero of circumstance rather than inherent nobility, and his main foil is arguably more admirable and deserving than the lead. Throughout the film the threat level escalates and the effects of withdrawal and tolerance to drugs is clearly shown, but the ending is a little too neat with regards to the primary threat and either dismissive or ambiguous with regards to the drug use. I would say, apart from the relatively underdeveloped character of the protagonist’s girlfriend, it is my main problem with the film. Part of me feels it is brave and intentionally ambiguous, but I don’t think the rest of the film is quite clever or thought provoking enough to get away with as open ended an ending. Or it could just be that the ending is messy, in which case it is disappointing compared to the relative quality of the rest of the film.