The Walk made me want to stab my eyes out with forks. First, this was a bad thing. Then, weirdly, it was a good thing.
The new film about tightrope walker Philippe Petit's 1974 jaunt between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center is an utterly bizarre creation, devoting its first half to a series of irritating moments, seemingly designed to put the audience off it forever, before it abruptly turns into a soaring, gorgeous "You are there!" movie that really does capture what it might feel like to walk on a high wire 110 stories above the ground.
If I were fonder of obvious metaphors, I might say that The Walk is awkwardly perched on a wire stretching between the poles of incredibly irritating and jaw-dropping. It's always wobbling, ready to fall, but it never quite plummets to earth, somehow always saving itself at the last minute.
Good: Director Robert Zemeckis is still a technical whiz kid
Robert Zemeckis is a bit of an odd presence in Hollywood. He likes to use gigantic special effects to tell what are ultimately intimate stories about the human spirit. Back to the Future is about a kid getting to know his parents. Forrest Gump is about a dolt uniting a nation. Flight mixes a tremendous near-plane crash with a tale of addiction. And so on.
Thus, The Walk is the kind of film only he could make. For the most part, everything here will be familiar to fans of the great 2008 documentary Man on Wire, which told this story via materials that had never been seen before. That means the only way Zemeckis can justify the film's existence is to really put viewers out there, on that wire, hearing the creak and moan of the buildings and gazing upon the spectators far, far below.
Fortunately, he's more than up to the task. The entire second half of this film (roughly from when Philippe and his friends begin their attempts to stretch a wire between the two towers to a surprisingly graceful closing line) is expert popcorn fun, Zemeckis's twin gifts for establishing geography and pacing working together in glorious harmony.
There are also few directors who use 3D as well as Zemeckis, who seems to understand that its greatest strength is to convey the depth of any given image, something he uses to great effect as Philippe's wires get higher and higher and higher, until he's up there between the towers, the ground far below. You won't see anything else quite like it.
Bad: The movie has no idea what to make of Philippe Petit
For most of the first half of the movie, Zemeckis, his co-screenwriter Christopher Browne, and star Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who plays the main character with a truly awful French accent) seem to view Philippe as a charming rogue, whose very existence will sweep the audience off its feet. He barges into other people's lives as if he should be the center of them. He steals the audience away from a fellow street performer he's trying to court. He, at one point, seethes about not being able to wear his turtleneck.
This man is often ridiculous. He's a bit of a megalomaniac. And, yes, he's a brilliant artist. But where Man on Wire managed to blend all of these things together into a portrait of the sort of human being who would manage such an incredible feat, The Walk often seems like it thinks the cure for the audience's dislike of Philippe is to give it even more Philippe, to the degree that the movie is anchored by him directly addressing the audience from atop the Statue of Liberty's torch.
There's a certain logic to this. We have to understand Philippe completely and totally if we're going to understand why he spends almost an hour out there on the wire. But the film never seems willing to fully commit to his darker sides, instead having characters occasionally tell us he seems unstable, before cutting to Gordon-Levitt's winning smile.
Good: James Badge Dale livens up every scene he's in
As a French-speaking New Yorker who goes by J.P., James Badge Dale is by far the standout of a supporting cast that has a tendency to gravitate toward broad types. Charlotte Le Bon, for instance, is just playing "the love interest," which is a disappointing use of the film's only major woman character, and there are a couple of potheads who actually use the word "high" as a punchline.
Dale, however, turns J.P. into the group's "face," the guy who can talk them into and out of any situation, mostly by relying on his New York knowledge and easy grin. There's a version of this movie that focuses much more on the weird community of accomplices that sprung up around Philippe, and in that movie, Dale is probably right there at the center. In this one, however, it's just nice to have him around to puncture Philippe's ego here and there.
Bad: Seriously, what is up with Joseph Gordon-Levitt's accent?
The problem with Gordon-Levitt's performance here is that he's likely the only actor at his level of fame who could have played this part. He's got all the necessary skills, and he's not afraid to make himself unlikable in pursuit of a meaty role. Plus, it's great to see him at the center of his very own blockbuster, and there are moments (particularly in that second half) when he proves the kind of steady presence the film needs at its center.
But for too much of the running time, he seems to be consumed by Philippe, rather than having any real control over him. To be sure, Philippe is a bit of an intentionally irritating person, and there's tension in the idea of Philippe being a jerk to his friends but finding himself the hero in his own mind.
But Gordon-Levitt never convincingly sells the scenes where the character is supposed to be losing his mind or taking his friends for granted. It's as if the film (or the actor) simply isn't willing to push further and make this character as hard to take as he must have been in real life.
Oh, and that accent is really, really bad. It sounds like he's doing an intentionally bad imitation of Jacques Cousteau.
Good: The walk of the title is worth the price of admission in and of itself
There are some films you see simply for their images, and The Walk just might be one of them. There's the tense, elaborate buildup to the tightrope walk. There's the nerve-racking first crossing. There's the way Zemeckis really makes you feel what it must have been like to be out on that wire, to even lie down on it, as Philippe does at one point.
One of the chief advantages of the "You are there!" movie is the way it puts you places you can never or will never go. Gravity stuck you in outer space. Everest let you climb Mount Everest. And now, The Walk places you inside the perspective of the only man who ever walked a wire between the Twin Towers. It's a safe thrill ride, a roller coaster that's all drop, before you coast into the station, queasy but thrilled.
What's fascinating is how Zemeckis (assisted by ace cinematography from Dariusz Wolski and Alan Silvestri's majestic score) so firmly inserts viewers into Philippe's head that the walk itself is far from the film's most nerve-rattling moment. Indeed, the longer it goes on, it becomes more and more peaceful, especially after all the tension in the sequences leading up to it, which combine all the stress of trying to get the wire in place in time with the added "fun" of everyone occasionally dangling from the edge of a skyscraper.
That point in space, hovering in the air between two gigantic skyscrapers, is the place Philippe Petit was born to occupy, if only for a little while. There is a point in the sky where only he has stood, where only he will ever stand. The Walk works best when it clings to the ephemeral nature of that moment, to the thought that the performance, sooner or later, is capped with a bow.
The amazing: Steve Valentine's mustache
Just look at it.
The Walk is currently playing in IMAX theaters around the country. It will open in other formats on October 9, but seriously, see it in IMAX.