This time last week, it was that time of year when, for the first time in almost 365 days, you could truly sense it; Thanksgiving was as delightfully near as the memory of wafting amalgamated aromas of turkey, green bean casserole and pies galore – apple, pumpkin, whatever your preferred poison – reaching your nasal cavities. Thoughts of past celebrations with family flow back as you engorge yourself on quality comfort food on one of the few annual occasions when it doesn’t feel disgusting to do so, and in fact are obliged to push the gastronomical limits – as my mother says around this time, Christmas and birthdays, though my waistline in the moment would certainly beg to differ, “Calories don’t count today.” Even in an increasingly foodie-driven culture, Thanksgiving food still occupies a special place where it need not be particularly demanding in terms of flavor complexity, and instead simply taste good while filling us with enjoyment – at least until that enjoyment is torn asunder by the immediately pressing need to explain to a random family member that, especially thanks to specific moments and phenomena in human history, one cannot just refer to themselves as a ‘nationalist’ as if it were contextually akin to ‘patriot.’
For those moments, food cannot save your conscience, patience and sanity in the same way alcohol or grindhouse-inspired Hollywood B-movies about massacring Nazis can, albeit temporarily – and yes, that’s about as fitting a transition as my mind can currently find. Julius Avery’s Overlord, a simple revisionist war-horror blend of drama and genre thrills arrived in cinemas at the right time to satiate baser creature comforts. Expectedly, it’s an undemanding yarn consisting of basic ingredients coinciding with one another to create a familiar di – oh, that’s where the smoothest transition was – without need for thematic rigor or that occasionally thorny requirement in all but name of character development. Go to a place – in this case, Nazi-occupied France – and shoot the baddies – duh – only to discover a grotesque, sinister plot by the baddies to preserve their oppressive baddie-dom, proceeding to throw a wrench in such plans by shooting and graphically maiming even more baddies; that’s the formula Paramount’s trailers advertised, and damned if the finished product didn’t deviate one iota from such intentions.
Even at 150 minutes in length and in spite of some slow patches sporadically arising through the first and second acts en route to a final 25 minutes and change when the film most lives up to the trailers’ promises, Overlord represents the welcome standard of efficiency films of this sort sometimes cannot accomplish. It wastes no time getting the action underway trying to instill as much stress as is possible from a CGI recreation of a paratrooper plane being shot out of the sky, and then proceeds at its own measured pace establishing its narrative and characters’ places in factual history, peppering little exposition tidbits throughout its course, even more exponentially intimating at the macabre insanity of its premise before ceremoniously popping the champagne. It announces its presence with the necessary bravado of any film owing its aesthetic to ‘70s exploitation, asking no questions of its viewers as it lines up nameless Nazis onscreen for sensation-dulling slaughter, and yet its resistance to quickly coming and going like the usual B-movie, instead hanging around to ensure we consume the fullest possible experience, is in and of itself refreshingly welcome.
Sometimes, though, you wish it’d just keep ticking along. It’s difficult to justify demanding much of a film that most prominently advertises badass American soldiers, mad Nazi scientists and the bastard offspring of their dastardly ideological wish-fulfillment to the tune of AC/DC, and yet the film still occasionally, seemingly expects more of itself during those intermittent patches when it takes the sting out of its pacing. It isn’t so much that the film possesses an anti-war stance, expectedly conflating war’s own existential and physiological horrors with the potential frights induced by its “thousand-year Reich” monsters – a perhaps implicit metaphor that’s played out a little unevenly, itself, and ultimately undone by a final act that indulges our deepest, most sadistic pleasures in watching Nazis being blown away by strapping lads and one French village woman handling heavy artillery – and rather that its slower movements try to adequately cover the nuances of morality and ethics in wartime. Granted, it has the runtime to theoretically achieve this goal, but it doesn’t possess the structure to maintain and explore any potential efforts in this direction while piling mercilessly gored Nazi bodies on top of one another.
It isn’t especially helpful for Overlord’s case that these sequences seem structurally and thematically dedicated to some minor form of character growth, alongside such potentially surprising intellectual undercurrents, that does and doesn’t manifest itself. The narrative evolves its protagonists in ways that were already anticipated with the air of progressing in a bold direction toward a deeply thought and felt summation – only for it to conclude the way it should (see above references to Nazis) and all but forego these greater ambitions. Of course, then, perhaps it’s relatively worthy debating what constituted the filmmakers’ intent; a debate that in reality ought not be necessary for a premise as blatantly predicated upon fulfilling gorehound lust and entertaining fanatical and/or intoxicated genre film festival audiences. Was it merely to offer relatively insignificant morsels of brain food to help us feel less guilty about the no-frills junk we’ve willing paid more than $10 to see, or were these themes cut back due to the understandably difficult balance of studio-mandated broad entertainment versus food for thought?
Either way, the ultimate outcome was perhaps the best case scenario, accenting the madness with thoughtfulness and philosophy rather than taking it over, and for what it’s worth, the characters, though respectively appealing to a specific, time-worn trait and not stretching far from it, make the process enjoyable and ensure the final act isn’t undone by the individual or collective presence of people we wouldn’t mind seeing die – in addition to all of those damned Nazis. Familiar to the rib-sticking flavors of genre thrills, Avery captures the mayhem with capably frenetic aplomb, as well, using the concept’s horror background as its own side dish contextualizing the recognizable war drama beats whose down-time between each other are slightly reduced by the action-thriller appearance. There’s nothing terribly vintage about his mimicking grindhouse aesthetics, either, and rather he positions the film well as a callback without calling attention to itself – at least, not in the same way a Tarantino flick attempting a similar style calls attention to itself, though it seems co-writers Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith came ready with their own Inglorious Basterds references.
Admittedly, this was always going to be a short review, partially because it’s my first one after taking a brief hiatus in the lead-up to the GRE, no doubt some rust to wear off, and because of the film itself. There isn’t much to write home about Overlord, and yet, for how much can you fault a movie with that kind of essence, advertising and follow-through? There are only so many words, phrases and passages one can use creatively describing a film that thrives almost solely upon checklist conventions without becoming, in its own way, a checklist evaluating someone else’s, and though that’s the unenviable, unpitiable burden of any critic, it nonetheless constrains and frustrates in a way that can make one wish they were doing – or writing about – something else more fulfilling. Then again, sometimes it’s just as satisfying using as unnecessarily prodigious a word count as possible to explain why one should see a film like Overlord when all it really needs in terms of recommendation is one sentence, maybe two.
So, head out to the theater and see Overlord if you enjoy gruesome WWII action and the heroic triumph of good versus the ultimate evil, and maybe you’ll find a belated post-Thanksgiving safe haven to remind you that more than one person in the world understands what ‘nationalism’ really means.