In one moment, 12-year-old Komona (Rachel Mwanza) is doing ordinary chores in her village in an unnamed African country, and in the next rebel soldiers are forcing her to machine-gun her parents to death. Her trauma is far from over, and neither is yours. In fact, as War Witch (New Video DVD and streaming) unfolds, her trauma builds on itself. Starting with her parents, she sees dead people—eerie figures daubed white and blank-eyed—and rebel leader Great Tiger (Mazinga Mwinga) believes that gives his side the edge. She may try to flee, to begin to start over with something like a normal life, but her connection to the dead haunts her in more ways than one.
Canadian director Kim Nguyen's film begins at the kind of emotional pitch most films never reach—a self-orphaning—and it doesn't let up, or let down, from there. And it continues to be about family, whether its Komona's struggles to get along with her captors, her attempt to leave the war behind at the side of fellow soldier the Magician (Serge Kanyinda), or, eventually, her coming to terms with the baby she carries in her belly and is soon to bring into a world that has taken everything from her several times. One might be tempted to second-guess the fable-like quality of the story for potential patronization (compare War Witch's magical realism with, say, Elem Klimov's Come and See), but Mwanza's performance and Nguyen's lucid direction create indelible moment after indelible moment.
South Korean film Pieta (Image DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming) presents as more of a genre film than War Witch, but, as with so many South Korean films these days, it transcends genre while doing it. Twentysomething Gang-do (Lee Jung-jin) leads a pretty brutal existence himself, shaking down tardy loan-shark customers and crippling them for insurance money. But there's something unformed about him, from his perma-snarl to the way he humps his pillow in his sleep. And sure enough, all it takes is older woman Mi-son (Jo Min-soo) popping up and claiming to be the mother that abandoned him as a child to explain plenty about Gang-do, and to set writer/director Kim Ki-duk's plot in motion.
Kim has hopped back and forth over the border between art house and grindhouse for years now, and Pieta offers a bit of the best of both. Gang-do's sudden vulnerability nears over-the-top, as does the secret Mi-son keeps, but there's something so primal at the root of both characters that it's tough not to be drawn in.
In fact, Pieta packs a lot of the kind of essential emotional power that Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines (Universal DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming) really wishes it did. The director's follow-up to Blue Valentine starts out as an accomplished small-town noir, in which a dirtbag motorcycle stunt dude (Ryan Gosling) learns that he has an illegitimate son and, overcome with parental sentiment, starts robbing banks to provide for the family he just found out he had.
But Cianfrance is after bigger game. His story launches a second stage with a small-town cop (Bradley Cooper), equally somehow damaged at his core, and then a third stage featuring a next-gen showdown between the sons of the cop and robber (Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan, respectively). Cianfrance shows real skill with some gripping chase/getaway scenes, and various other set-ups along the way, but the epic scope he's aiming for here eludes him. Gosling and Cooper are both charismatic, estimable actors, but they come off like they're working in pure default mode, generating little engagement up to handing things over to their outmatched onscreen progeny for the final, supposedly cathartic act. Animal Kingdom's Ben Mendelsohn has a great small turn as a hustling mechanic, but he also delivers one of the worst lines in recent cinema. In short, it's a wash.
Likewise, The Iceman (Millennium DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming) wants badly to punch in a class with Scorsesean and Coppolonian gangland sagas, but it barely rises above TV-movie class. Michael Shannon is an acquired taste, it's true, but he certainly bears both the menace and the depth to play Richie Kuklinski, a laconic brute spotted for his talent for violence and recruited to serve as a prolific hitman for a minor mobster (Ray Liotta). The supposed drama here is generated by the tension between Kuklinski's unflinching violence and his devotion to his wife (Winona Ryder—welcome back) and two daughters. But other than one scene in which the wife and kids get a glimpse of the fact that dad's a sociopath, director Ariel Vroman doesn't commit sufficiently to the tensions between Richie's domestic family and his crime family. And it certainly doesn't help that Vroman hired handsome Chris Evans and handsome-esque David Schwimmer to put on ridiculous wigs and play tough guys. Why not just hire actual ugly people who can act?