Essays · TV

Hiro Murai Has Mastered the Art of the Gut Punch

The ‘Atlanta,’ ‘Barry,’ and ‘This is America’ director has cultivated an impressive, distinct filmmaking voice.
By  · Published on May 25th, 2018

There are countless metrics that can be employed to judge the quality of whatever you like to watch: novelty, technical quality, satisfaction or joy, relatability, binge-ability, broadness, specificity, context in history, politics, and filmography… the list goes on. Yet for me, none of those things are quite as memorable or unquantifiably awesome as that gut-punch feeling, a moment of pure breathless, speechless surprise. When that moment comes — if it comes — it’s less an emotion than an instance of frission; a sharp, inappropriate laugh, a teary tingle behind the nose, or maybe just a sudden shiver.

With less than a decade of IMDb credits to his name and not a single feature film among them, director Hiro Murai has already mastered the gut-punching, “what the fuck just happened?” moment, creating art that forces us to not only engage with our own discomfort, but also to (almost compulsively) rewind, replay, and fixate. With a strong, hypnotic visual voice that comes through in the television shows Barry, Legion, and most of all Atlanta, as well as in music videos for artists including Childish Gambino, Murai is nothing short of a small screen auteur in the making.

The Tokyo-born, LA-based filmmaker has listed everyone from David Lynch and Akira Kurosawa to the Coen brothers and Danny Boyle as erstwhile favorites, and his cocktail of bold, dark, and ambitious inspirations is clear in his work, yet never overshadows his own signature. Meanwhile, his infatuation with dreamlike experimentalism, immaculate technical aspects, and make-it-bleed aesthetics also bring to mind creative greats like Lynne Ramsay, David Fincher, and even Hitchcock. While many consider Donald Glover the genius responsible for Atlanta, Murai’s directorial touch has also been invaluable to its success, and throughout the course of Robbin’ Season, his name in the credits became an increasingly powerful motivator to tune in.

Murai’s work is nearly always absurdist and uncanny, often bringing to mind a dream that edges on nightmare territory. He trades in striking images, slowly creeping unease, and jarring, discordant tonal shifts that hit viewers on a near-primal level. Interestingly, and perhaps most notably, Murai puts intention and suspense in every onscreen motion. The first image of Atlanta’s pilot episode is a shoe stomping down on a car’s side mirror, a single-second shot that requires immediate attention and sets us on edge for the rest of the scene (and, if we’re smart, the entire series). Later in the opening scene, in the middle of a heated exchange, a character suddenly mentions having deja vu, then points out a stray dog with a white spot in its fur shaped like Texas. Then, after a disorienting switch to an aerial view, a gunshot rings out. One, two, punch. There’s no clear meaning behind any of it, which might be the point, but Murai’s hypnotic yet kinetic direction sinks its hooks into you nonetheless.

Despite the inevitable rush of intellectualizing that followed his recent Gambino collaboration, “This is America,” Murai’s work seems designed to be felt in our bones as much as explained away. Of course, the Easter eggs, cultural references, and political significance of his work are meant to be explored (in my experience, this year’s Atlanta watercooler discussion has any other watercooler discussion beat by a mile), but when Glover first pulls the gun from his waistband in “This is America,” or when Earl Sweatshirt’s face morphs into a grinning ghoul sketch in “Chum,” or when naked, masked fraternity pledges start ominously dancing to the song “Laffy Taffy” in front of a confederate flag in Atlanta, you feel it in your body long before your brain can catch up.

This style of uneasy participatory entertainment might be Murai’s greatest strength. He’s refined it publicly in his work over these past eight years. Early collaborations with Glover, such as 2013’s Ferris wheel-set apocalypse music video “3005,” feel like vaguely less substantial rough drafts of the dark, surprising style Murai would later embrace. Five years later, Murai is capable of communicating a litany of reactions and micro-feelings in an instant. In Atlanta’s Season 2 opener, “Alligator Man,” two teenage Black boys take a trip to a drive-thru that ends in bloodshed. The image of a second passenger — a bloodied, screaming teen girl kicked out of the car as it drove away, unknown to us before or since — is one that sears itself to the brain. The seemingly random scene of violence looms large over the rest of the season, evoking a rawness and exposing a knot of nerves (both the audience’s and Black and white America’s) that never goes away.

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When viewed alongside “This is America” and Atlanta’s best episode — the fame, race, and family-tackling horrorshow “Teddy Perkins,” on which so many great words have already been written — Murai’s work on the HBO hitman series Barry proves that the filmmaker has fully mastered audience-implicating tone shifts. In the last seconds of his finale-ramp-up episode, “Listen With Your Ears, React With Your Face,” a game-changing scene cuts off a conversation with gunshots through a window, first heard, then seen as they break through glass and flesh. Somewhere in the second between when the shots are fired and when they land lies that now-familiar sudden lump in our throats, Murai’s best and most devastating gift.

All three of the titles mentioned above deliver more gut-punches than viewers are likely prepared to take, and stir together levity, violence, and artistry in complex ways that leave us both feeling bad for watching so many times and unequivocally unable to look away. There’s no way to quantify that type of reaction, and I have a feeling that in 2018 the world is only beginning to understand it, but there’s definitely creative and cultural significance in the art that itself interrogates the way we take in art.

Although he’s an artist who has so far built his name on astonishing unpredictability, there’s at least one bet worth making on Murai: whatever comes next will pull us in whether we like it or not, and transport us somewhere between a dream, a nightmare, and wake-up call.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)