Thursday, April 12, 2018

An Ordinary Man: Ben Kingsley Plays the War Criminal

Arguably, Ratko Mladic was a terrible general, but he still won the war. In terms of military tactics, his strategic sense was highly dubious, but he was lethally efficient when it came to genocide. Unfortunately, the West still has no stock remedy for ethnic cleansing, so it often ends up codifying the results, as it did with the Dayton Accords. “The General” is transparently based on Mladic and he sleeps just fine at night. Time might be finally running out for the fugitive war criminal, but do not expect any apologies in Brad Silberling’s An Ordinary Man (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

There is no question The General is modeled on Mladic, right down to the daughter who tragically committed suicide out of shame for her father’s atrocities. He still lives rather comfortably in safe houses, thanks to a network of former comrades, but he must conduct himself in a more secretive manner. Of course, convincing him of that will be easier said than done.

As luck would have it, The General finds something to keep him distracted. That would be Tanja, the previous tenant’s cleaning lady. She has the misfortune of barging in on The General, who promptly humiliates her, both out of paranoia and for fun. Yet, she accepts a full-time servant position, because she recognizes the ethnic cleanser and generally subscribe to his world-view.

Ordinary Man is a very unsettling film, because it takes you into The General’s unrepentant, fanatical head-space, without delivering any decisive moral comeuppance to assure us that all is right with the world after all. To make things even more discomfiting, Sir Ben Kingsley plays The General with seductively sinister élan. It is easy to see how he could convince average people to commit horrific crimes. Although Hera Hilmar is rather naïve and innocent looking as Tanja, she is such an impressionable empty vessel, it is also rather chilling to see her getting filled up with hate.

For the record, Silberling is the same director who helmed Casper, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Land of the Lost. It is nice to know he has a dark side too—and is Ordinary Man ever dark. The Belgrade locations definitely heighten the ominous vibe. However, these characters and the environment they inhabit are so amoral, it is hard to get what Silberling might have hoped audiences would have taken away from the film.

Nevertheless, there is no denying the power and accomplishment of Kingsley work (which would be interesting to watch paired up with Polanski’s Death and the Maiden, in case anyone is planning a Kingsley retrospective). Recommended for sophisticated viewers already well-grounded in 1990s and early 2000s Balkan history, An Ordinary Man opens tomorrow (4/13) in New York, at the Village East.