Monday, 18 February 2013

Mother Night (1996)

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is a writer who, I am sad to say, I have never read. Despite hearing great things about Slaughterhouse Five I've just never managed to delve into his work. Yet. Based on the content of this movie adaptation of Mother Night (one of his works), whether it sticks rigidly to the source novel or not, that is something I will have to change soon because the man writes some thought-provoking stuff.

Nick Nolte plays Howard Campbell, an American who grew up in Germany and became a successful playwright. As an adult, he fell in love with an actress (Sheryl Lee) and somehow managed to enjoy his life while avoiding intense scrutiny from the Nazis. However, when he is asked by a mysterious stranger (John Goodman) to consider working as an American spy his whole life changes. All he has to do is work for Germany, deliver speeches over the radio (speeches that have been annotated with a code he follows even though he doesn't even know the meaning of it) and continue living his life of relative privilege. Of course, that's only all well and good until the war ends and it's really when Howard moves on throughout his adult life that the questions raised at the very beginning of the movie start to burrow into your mind and take hold.

Directed by Keith Gordon (who will always be Arnie from Christine to me), and adapted for the screen by Robert B. Weide, Mother Night is a stunning movie once the premise is fully established about ten or fifteen minutes into proceedings. It's about good and evil and how complex, and close, those two things can be, highlighted in a central character who pretends to be someone evil to do good, but may well have also been responsible for a lot of evil deeds while playing his part all too well. Does pretending to be someone evil actually make you evil?

The interesting material, and it's made all the more interesting thanks to the ambiguity always weaving through the material (I, personally, couldn't make up my own mind as to whether or not I found Howard Campbell to be evil), is made all the better thanks to a fantastic cast. I've never been the biggest fan of Nolte, but I think this may be his best performance. It's certainly the best thing that I've seen him in. Sheryl Lee plays the love of his life and she's someone else that I've never been all that impressed with. I think she got luckier than she could have ever hoped when she landed her role(s) in Twin Peaks, but here she gives a very good performance, especially in the second half of the movie. John Goodman lends his usual greatness to the film - though, on a side note, how MANY times has Goodman played someone on the sidelines who ends up greatly influencing the main events? I think it may be his specialty - and so does Alan Arkin. Arye Gross also does well with his small role, Kirsten Dunst has an even smaller role and David Strathairn has mere seconds onscreen, but is always worth looking out for.

Unjustly neglected by many people, including myself (for which I am appropriately annoyed), over the past 15 years, Mother Night is a film well worth seeking out and giving 110 minutes of your life to. It's a new favourite of mine and I hope that others enjoy it just as much.



  1. It really is a great piece of work that just sort of came and went without much notice. For the most part, the movie sticks very close to the book on this one, though details are shortened and left out. In portraying Nazism, the film tends to focus on the virulent anti-Semitism at the expense of everything else, which I think is the movie's only real weakness. The moment in the film that seemed to stick in my head is Howard's conversation with Eichmann in prison in Israel in which the Nazi chief tells him he doesn't need credit for all those millions he killed--he can spare Howard a few.

    Vonnegut is an incredible writer, and you should certainly check him out. "Mother Night" is Howard Campbell's story, but he appears in several of Vonnegut's books (including "Slaughterhouse Five"). Vonnegut is very difficult to adapt to the screen, and this is easily the best effort.

  2. You even managed to spell his name correctly. I noticed my error and had to go back to edit. Phew, act like you saw nothing :-)

    Yes, that conversation with Eichmann was one of many great moments and I liked that line. I

    I will definitely be seeking out some of Vonnegut's writing at some point, but my reading schedule is even busier than my viewing schedule lately.