Director Bong Joon Ho, like many cinephiles, is a big fan of Tilda Swinton. And at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, he tracked her down and professed his admiration at a brunch. Afterwards, they mutually decided they would work together on something in the future.
Joon Ho was in the process of writing “Snowpiercer,” and he feared there would not be a part for Swinton in the script. But then he had a stroke of genius: he would cast Swinton, no stranger to playing some rather gonzo roles, as the authoritative Minister Mason. This part, however, was initially written for a man.
Swinton gets made-down quite amusingly by the hair and makeup department, pairing her with a drab wig and some nasty dentures. She’s not her usually chic self, but Swinton isn’t identifiably masculine, either. Joon Ho doesn’t change any of the personal pronouns in the script, so Mason is still referred to as a he.
Swinton’s performance, then, is not one that doesn’t choose a gender but seems to transcend our understanding of the binary altogether. As a whole, “Snowpiercer” relishes in this spirit of breaking boundaries. It can’t necessarily be tied down to one genre, constantly surprising us with each turn.
The film is a bit all over the map tonally because of renegade streak, with some rather jarring shifts between action, social commentary, and off-kilter humor. Yet “Snowpiercer” can usually survive these disjunctions because Joon Ho simply electrifies the film with his energetic direction. There’s something undeniably exciting about watching him defy conventional wisdom and make the movie he wants, even if it does come out slightly bonkers.
While it’s always entertaining, “Snowpiercer” is also simultaneously a very socially conscious film. The sociology major in me rejoices at how the topic of worldwide economic stratification and the subsequent inequality it produces seems to be catching fire in the collective imagination. It got a satisfying lecture-as-documentary treatment in last year’s “Inequality for All,” and now it gets a suitably intriguing fictional counterpart. (With all due respect to “Elysium” for tackling it first, that film was a heavy-handed bore that I have yet to finish.)
Joon Ho’s entire film takes place on board a train – which happens to be immaculately decked out by the art and set decorators – that replicates our current societal structure. That’s made more depressing, though, by the fact that “Snowpiercer” is set 17 years after a cataclysmic tragedy wipes out humanity while trying to save us from global warming. So much for tragedy bringing us all together.
No, the rich take up the majority of the train. Meanwhile, all the working class and poor denizens are stuffed into a few sparsely lit, cramped cars at the back. (Kind of like how at the present moment, 1% of the world controls 50% of its wealth.)
“Snowpiercer” propels forward narratively on the efforts of a proletariat revolution, led by Captain America himself (Chris Evans) as Curtis, to control the engine and control the world. They march further and further towards seizing control of this microcosm of our society, discovering along the way how the absurd opulence in which the rich luxuriate on board the train. Part of the fun of the film is the surprise of seeing what could possibly come next, and I’ll leave those for you to discover for yourself rather than regale you with details.
Joon Ho is far better at making this grand sociopolitical statement than he is at coaxing dramatic moments out of the cast, though. Evans is rather wooden in the lead, never quite displaying the magnetism of a revolutionary nor the vulnerability of a world-weary beaten soul. The supporting cast does manage to add color to the film, particularly with exaggerated performances from Swinton and Korean actor Kang-ho Song as the drug-addicted prisoner, Namgoong Minsu, who aids Curtis’ mission.
But “Snowpiercer” is a film that concerns itself with things far larger than characters, and it’s all the more compelling to watch as a result. Joon Ho does come close to falling off the rails every once in a while, but the film chugs forward with such momentum that its force is quite irresistible. B /