Lisey’s Story digs into horrifying truths [Apple TV+ review]

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Lisey's Story review: Clive Owen plays deceased novelist Scott Landon.
Clive Owen plays deceased novelist Scott Landon.
Photo: Apple TV+

Scott Landon relives the worst trauma of his childhood on this week’s episode of Lisey’s Story, the Stephen King miniseries on Apple TV+. It’s his turn to go back to the foundational horrors that propel him. And what he finds is ugly indeed.

Lisey’s Story episode 5: ‘The Good Brother’ review

In the wake of her kidnapping and torture, Lisey (played by Julianne Moore) takes a long, hard look in the mirror and at her own past. Lisey’s been ignoring the worst and most painful parts of her marriage to horror novelist Scott Landon (Clive Owen). But with something like a hard deadline from a crazy person — Scott’s superfan, Jim Dooley (Dane DeHaan) — she has little choice.

She goes back to the water of experience and remembers the story Scott told about the death of his brother Paul (Clark Furlong). Paul was infected by what their father (Michael Pitt) called “The Bad.”

Something happened to Paul at Boo’ya Moon, their hideaway in their own imagination (a favorite Stephen King device), that infected him. Their father chained Paul up in the shed, drugged him and starved him before finally they killed him as it was becoming clear that the bad would never go away. Feral Paul would grow stronger and stronger (he pulls a tractor a few feet) until he became unstoppable. Or so their dad told young Scott.

I don’t want to be quiet

This episode, titled “The Good Brother,” is cleft in twain like last week: half fantasy, half hard reality. But the navigation is a bit more canny.

The only letdown this week is the performance of Clive Owen, who never quite gets to the level of childlike vulnerability needed to sell his confession to Lisey about his brother’s death. He’s been so good the whole series I can overlook this, but it’s a little bit of a bummer that director Pablo Larraín didn’t dig a little deeper to get a better take of that very important scene.

It can’t help but look a little lacking compared to the full-bore grotesquery of Michael Pitt’s (back on screen after a short absence and welcome, frankly) scenes, reveling in the disheveled and drugged-up farm life Larraín designed for him in which to play. The stuff about Landon’s childhood is quite bracing, reaching a kind of true and unsparing darkness from which most directors who adapt King usually shy away.

I’m sure part of it is not wanting to offend anyone who lives in King’s Maine boondocks. But also, very few people can do this without it just seeming obviously, demonstrably false. Larraín doesn’t always totally hit the mark but he’s never shied away from the grotesque in his life.

A new style

Larraín’s first film, Fuga, which, like Lisey’s Story, is about an artist’s reckoning with trauma, didn’t make a huge splash outside of South America. His follow-ups — slow cinema tone poems Tony Manero and Post Mortem — fared better. They earned him the attention of international financiers and star Gael García Bernal, with whom he’s now collaborated several times.

Larraín was part of a wave of international directors who rose to prominence at the same time for conjuring disturbing tableaux of a haunted middle class and not looking away when everybody destroyed themselves.

Two decades ago, a new arthouse vanguard started to emerge to fill a hole in film culture. As “slow” or durational cinema of the Béla Tarr or Chantal Akerman school became its own niche, seen only by the converted, that left a kind of maximalist, ironic gap in the international film landscape.

Pablo Larraín and the film fests

Larraín’s name started appearing in film festival catalogs at the same time as Yorgos Lanthimos, Cristi Puiu, Jessica Hausner, Kornél Mundruczó, Amat Escalante, Cristian Mungiu, Carlos Reygadas, Joseph Cedar, Paolo Sorrentino, Céline Sciamma, Lucrecia Martel, Lisandro Alonso and Sergei Loznitsa among others threw their hats into the ring. One of them was sure to be the next Stanley Kubrick, the next Andrei Tarkovsky, the next Agnès Varda.

It’s been an exciting time — and also slightly frustrating, once the limits of this new school of artists’ ambitions became clear. Lanthimos “went Hollywood” when he made The Favourite. Mungiu’s 2016 film Graduation seemed like true ossification into miserablist shtick. Alonso and Martel work something like once a decade. Mundruczó and Sorrentino haven’t made a good movie in a decade, etc., etc., etc.

Hits and misses

Not all of these artists had the same goals, heaven knows, but they were treated to the same scrutiny and press. They were the people who got the coverage at festivals, whose ascent into the upper echelon was closely followed by journalists. Larraín, like Lanthimos and Reygadas, has proven polarizing. Every other film seems to net him his best or worst reviews yet.

Tony Manero was talked up as stunning and brutal and it’s to its milieu that this episode most frequently harks, with its disgusting patriarchs overseeing doomed little fiefdoms. With its un-simulated sex and harrowing murder sequences, the film truly begged to be reckoned with. If you looked away, it was like the thing might cut you. Post Mortem was more of the same but more deliberately airless, and his 2012 film No was gifted near universal praise, while his follow-ups were perhaps inevitably handled less cautiously.

2015’s The Club was about a colony of disgraced priests living an isolated existence, and 2016’s Neruda was about the poet/politician Pablo Neruda. Both films received muted praise. Neruda is for my money Larraín’s best work full-stop, and indeed one of the great films made during that decade.

2016’s Jackie was laughed off screens by most discerning critics and, though I liked it, I have to say understandably so. Its view of history, and the Natalie Portman performance at its center, are both purposely overblown and simple. I won’t make a case for it as great art (though I do think it’s a good impression of “great American Art”) but I was thoroughly entertained. Moved, even.

Comparisons to Kubrick

The inevitable comparisons to the exacting Kubrick that a lot of directors of Larraín’s generation receive is a little more useful here because A) He really does seem to be operating on a similar emotional wavelength — cold on the surface, warm and alive inside. And B) After making a handful of wildly different kinds of movie in his signature style, he’s adapted a Stephen King novel to bring to the fore the things people took for granted in his moviemaking.

Larraín seems aware of the optics of adapting King (especially with King on board writing it, as he did to redo Kubrick’s take on The Shining, a movie King famously loathes). And yet he adds little nods to Kubrick’s movie from time to time, almost as if he were attempting to get the two to shake hands.

Lisey’s Story is a show about an artist’s legacy that is also in constant conversation with the very idea of an artist’s legacy and the legacy of the artists he’s savvy enough to recognize he can’t make this without invoking.  And, more impressive still, Larraín’s doing this in a fashion that is still wholly and recognizably his.

Anyone could have adapted Lisey’s Story. But only Larraín would have made it hum at this frequency.

Lisey’s Story on Apple TV+

New episodes of Lisey’s Story arrive on Apple TV+ on Fridays.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.