Unsuspecting audiences are about to have their teeth kicked in by the filmmaker’s brand of gritty genre fare.
Last week, we got our first glimpse of The Crown’s Claire Foy as the new Lisbeth Salander in the Millennium series reboot/sequel The Girl in the Spider’s Web. This new chapter of the story of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” not only has a new lead but also a new director at the helm. And unless you’ve been an avid fan of genre cinema of the last five years, his name, Fede Alvarez, may not ring a bell.
But Spider’s Web is going to introduce a whole new audience to Alvarez’s brand of dark, brutal realism within fantastical, impossible situations. And I don’t think they know what’s about to hit them.
Alvarez was born in Uruguay, where he found work after film school in commercials and running a post-production visual effects studio, all of which just gave him the time and resources to make his own short films on the side. Those early works include the genre-tinted El Cojonudo (or to us Anglos: Mr. Big Balls), which is about a couple who come upon an old man who tells them of a never-heard Uruguayan legend.
He kept developing more shorts and uploading them to YouTube (including a duo of Star Wars inspired fan films that can still be found on his channel). Then, in 2009, he made Ataque de pánico! (Panic Attack!), a short about giant robots invading Montevideo, where he lived. As he told the Shock Waves podcast, he dropped Panic Attack! on YouTube in the earliest days of HD streaming and went to bed. By the time he woke up, the short had gone viral overnight and broke him out to the world thanks to the most unexpected person: Kanye West.
At the time, Kanye had a semi-influential animation blog and he stumbled on it from another small website that he found similar shorts from. And then, like we all do over a decade later, he shared it on his personal Twitter page, helping catapult Alvarez to Hollywood. Within a few weeks and after several meetings, the filmmaker had a $30 million deal through Mandate Picture and an agent with CAA, possibly the most influential talent agency in the industry.
On top of all that, he had developed a relationship with Sam Raimi, the head behind Ghost House Pictures and the original director of what would become Alvarez’s first project: the Evil Dead remake. A dream come true for a director who found early inspiration from an old behind-the-scenes VHS for House and Death Wish 3.
But he wouldn’t make a deal until he spoke with Raimi, which is antithetical to what you typically hear from a filmmaker in Hollywood, but it feels more indicative of his working-class aesthetic: if he’s going to be collaborating with someone, he wants to do it with someone who won’t take advantage of him or, frankly, be a dick. Someone he wants to work with. Which means that he surrounds himself with other artists and executives he trusts and can support his vision.
You can see this work ethic in the jobs he was offered after the success of Evil Dead that he eventually turned down. He passed on Marvel as he wasn’t going to have the creative control he desired. He passed on the Fast and Furious franchise, not because he doesn’t like the films, but because as a filmmaker he wants to put his own stamp on his work, which is difficult on franchises that don’t have room for individual vision. The Fast and the Furious is a brand that already has an established stamp, and directors, even James Wan, struggle to put their indelible mark on it.
This point, though, makes The Girl in the Spider’s Web very exciting because, if he chooses his projects as exactly what he likes and wants to tell, that means we have a working-class artist pouring himself into what he loves: telling a thrilling story that doesn’t feel divorced from reality.
While his Evil Dead may have had blood dripping from every frame and Deadites running amok and causing catastrophic bodily damage on the ensemble, the core metaphors for addiction and recovery remain deeply rooted at the heart of the film, which is something even Sam Raimi’s original lacks: pathos. By intensifying the violent action, specifically through its sound design, Alvarez creates a guttural emotional response in the audience that connects us to Jane Levy’s Mia as she battles her inner, and outer, demons.
Alvarez has a way of talking about directing as something that he fell into, that he was just doing it and then he was given the opportunity to make a career out of it. He said it stemmed from where he grew up and how in Uruguay filmmaking isn’t considered a “real” career. But with his blue-collar mentality and approach to his art, he imbues it with a rare salt of the earth sensibility.
This is equally electrifying in how his films, despite being major wide releases, feel like arthouse horror cinema. It’s a delicate balancing act that I think is a trademark of his work. Alive, real, and you feel every bloody step. And that couldn’t be more fully realized than in his second feature: Don’t Breathe.
Strangely ominous being released in the midst of the tumultuous 2016 election, where the rights of women would be questioned, and the rights of guns wouldn’t be, Don’t Breathe is a bleak, masterfully constructed labyrinth, plunging into the darkest recesses of a man’s mind and where he would go for revenge. And while sexuality was not a theme of Alvarez’s work thus far, by stripping that from the rape and abuse at the center of Don’t Breathe, we are left with a familiar subjugation of women’s autonomy that we are discovering today at the heart of violent MRA and Incel manifestos.
The Blind Man (Stephen Lang) doesn’t use the internet or a social platform to lord his power over the woman who killed his child, but the intention behind the act — “You took from me, I deserve something in return.” — feels eerily reminiscent of the jilted men who feel they are “deserving” of sex, not unlike many of the recent stories that have come out of the empowering #MeToo movement. It’s not something that I feel Alvarez intentionally put in to make a bold statement, but rather the heightened reality that he plays in is rife for deeper analysis.
It may not mimic narratives in 42nd Street or A Star is Born, but Alvarez’s rise in Hollywood is nothing short of a dream story. Local man does good! As creatives ourselves we should relish in these happy, incredible stories. In art, it is so easy to lean on jealousy and sniping, but this is one to savor, for how Alvarez came to be a Hollywood player is truly one for the books.
Also, with the World Cup well under way, keep your eyes on Uruguay: Fede promises that if they bring home the cup, we’ll finally get the long-awaited sequel to his Evil Dead!