Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter Review
Byon Jun 21, 2012
It may be largely irrelevant how faithful Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is to the events of history, but all other things being equal, I’m fairly certain that people had not yet begun to wear contact lenses. Remarkably (albeit presumably inadvertently), Timur Bekmambetov’s adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel of the same name does in fact feature this anachronistic eyewear, and it’s the tip of a very large iceberg of problems that sinks the film almost as soon as it begins. An ugly, unwieldy, hurried, machinelike monolith that oozes style without any sense of intelligence, pacing, or coherence, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter evidences the shortcomings of its makers without supplying audiences one ounce of enjoyment, unless of course trivializing some of the most important events in American history sounds like your idea of a good time.
Played as an adult by Benjamin Walker, Abraham Lincoln grew up in the shadow of his parents’ untimely – and unnatural – deaths: after mother Nancy (Robin McLeavy) and father Thomas (Joseph Mawle) succumb to a mysterious blood virus, young Abe develops an abiding hatred for vampires, although he doesn’t know they actually exist. But when he stumbles across the path of Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) while trying to take his revenge on Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), the man responsible for killing his parents, Sturgess not only reveals the community of vampires that lurks just out of humanity’s view, but trains him how to kill the creatures, one by one.
Taking a job as a clerk in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln makes friends with owner Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) and reunites with childhood pal Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie), even as he wages a nightly crusade to rid the town of its population of bloodsuckers. Simultaneously wooing Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) while cultivating an aptitude for public speaking, he soon becomes a husband, and later, politician, eventually finding himself in the White House desperately trying to end slavery as the President. But when a ruthless bloodsucker named Adam (Rufus Sewell) forges a pact with the Confederate Army to help win the Civil War, thereby ensuring the domination of not just blacks but all human beings, Lincoln is forced to pick up his axe one more time in order to hopefully defeat the vampire threat once and for all.
Although 2012 has been lucky for Seth Grahame-Smith, it hasn’t been especially kind: between this and Dark Shadows, the novelist and screenwriter is currently 0 for 2 on the big screen. Respectfully, this could be because his pedigree is in print, or at best, serialized television (he created the series The Hard Times of RJ Berger), but in terms of his screenwriting, there seems to be only a one-dimensional sense of continuity, and no consistency whatsoever. In AL: VH, the film never seems sure if it’s a ponderous political allegory, a sincere drama, or a fun summer adventure with a hint of history as its backdrop; the juxtaposition of earnest “Honest Abe” tropes, winking awareness of cultural mores then and now, and improbably sophisticated action choreography never congeals into anything that’s even fun, even if it didn’t feel purely – and exasperatingly – schizophrenic. And worse, it lies – even to itself: tapping into why Lincoln feels so strongly about killing vampires, Sturgess provokes him into a blind rage, and then insists that what he feels is empowerment “from truth.”
That said, Timur Bekmambetov has never demonstrated a solid grasp of tone, storytelling or style, and here the filmmaker seems to be grasping at straws to find a way to interject his strangely impersonal and yet authoritative visual flourishes into material that doesn’t demand them. Say what you will about the likes of Michael Bay, Brett Ratner or Zack Snyder, but they can assemble a scene that feels of a piece with the rest of the film, and whose technical execution has discernible purpose (even if that purpose is “just” to create a bad ass sequence). By comparison, Bekmambetov is so obsessed with speed ramping and style that he seems entirely unaware – or unconcerned with – what a given scene actually needs to communicate a sense of excitement, much less enable the audience to care what happens. Even in a set piece where the audiences is watching two men chase one another atop a swirling stampede of horses, Bekmambetov contributes nothing but visual overkill, and obliterates the possibility of feeling any sense of excitement or thrill.
Further, of the film’s many offenses, the worst is that AL: VH is by far one of the downright ugliest movies I have ever seen. In addition to shrouding every terrible VFX shot in smoke, rain, dust or some other atmospheric distraction, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, a guy who made The Natural one of the prettiest movies ever photographed, bathes everything in a halcyon glow seemingly intended to evoke tintype photos, but it comes off as temporary color timing that was never corrected or completed. In fact, the whole movie feels unfinished and desperately cobbled together, as if in its rush to get to the screen everyone involved just said, “fuck it – this is good enough.” (It isn’t.) And then there are just awful, inexcusable gaffes that nobody bothered to fix, such as when the opening voiceover contradicts the text of the letter (shot in mega-close-up) from which it’s supposedly being read, or yes, the actors’ contact lenses are easily visible.
Of the few positive things that can be said about the film, its cast is stellar, and the performances they contribute are as good as they can be given how stupid and superficial the material is that they’re given. As the title character, Walker exudes integrity and authority, and only falters when he’s given a tiresome existential crisis to deal with rather than either the physical challenge of dispatching a vampire or rhetorical one of defeating a grandstanding opponent. As a relative newcomer, Walker ran the risk of being swallowed by the role, and the film as a whole, but the biggest problem that can be attributed to him in the film is that he seems so interesting it’s a shame he doesn’t get more to actually do.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, meanwhile, contributes yet another of her terrific performances as Mary Todd, a woman who’s intrigued by Lincoln but seems to have her own identity, and proves to be a formidable companion to Walker when the two are called upon to command the screen. Not at all to be patronizing but it’s hard not to wish better for her careerwise given the great work she is doing on a consistent basis: her Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is an understated marvel of complexity, and even in last year’s remake/ prequel of The Thing, she turned a Final Girl cliché into something substantial, smart, strong, and yet compellingly vulnerable. It’s easy to understand why she would leap at the chance to play Mary Todd – the dramatic backdrop of Todd’s actual life notwithstanding, she could be a core member of a burgeoning blockbuster franchise – but she gives all of her intelligence and strength and utterly sympathetic humanity to a character that is poorly-served by the script and her director.
Similarly, Jimmi Simpson successfully tones down his well-established funny-creepiness to play Speed, and Mackie is effective if perhaps a little too anachronistic as Lincoln’s free African-American valet and friend Will Johnson. But Grahame-Smith’s pairing of vampire “oppression” and slavery is at best a glib parallel, at worst a trivialization of real historical figures whose principles were not just unimaginably unpopular but literally life-threatening, such as with “characters” like Harriet Tubman. At the same time, the whole film feels so frivolous and absurd that its cartoonish depiction of real historical figures isn’t even worth condemning.
All of which is why as a film, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter exemplifies the betrayal of one of its most fundamental ideas: it’s anger disguised as truth, and not the other way around, which reveals what we care most about. Or in this particular case, what we care least about, because the truth is that there is a promising idea behind the conceptualization of this film, but what’s frustrating is that the filmmakers not only did nothing with it, but effectively ruined the possibility of ever doing something, or at least doing it well.