After winning the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival last weekend, public opinion on Green Book quickly pivoted from a general curiosity in a dramatic effort from the guy who did Dumb and Dumber to genuine anticipation for an early Oscar frontrunner. The film’s first trailer, full of emotional monologues and swelling orchestral strings, already gave off a For Your Consideration vibe before Green Book even premiered. But TIFF has certainly become a stronger indicator of awards season success in recent years, and nine of the last ten People’s Choice Award winners went on to become Best Picture nominees. Universal went into overdrive this past week to get their sudden contender out to smaller festivals and screenings, so this week’s presentation at the 34th Boston Film Festival was a pleasant surprise.
Set in the back half of 1962, Green Book follows pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) after he hires bouncer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) to be his driver on a tour of the Deep South. Their pairing has the trappings of a buddy road movie, Shirley a wealthy and dignified artist and Tony a brash and illiterate tough guy. Shirley is reserved, polite, particular; Tony eats twenty-six hot dogs in a bid to win fifty bucks. More to Green Book‘s theme, Shirley is a Jamaican-born American rightfully concerned about his own safety on a tour of the increasingly bigoted South; Tony, an Italian-American who rarely leaves the Bronx, is for the most part blissfully unaware of his own racism.
In some instances Farrelly’s film glosses over what would be the tougher scenes of this narrative, particularly as relates to Shirley’s character arc and Tony’s family’s immediate change of heart at the close of the movie (more on that in a moment). This is frustrating for a film that should go the extra mile to probe every interaction for deeper context and — more importantly — for analogous application in today’s world, fifty-six years removed from 1962, wherein we still deal with a disturbingly similar level of prejudice in America.
For the most part, though, Green Book is a movie fronted by two complicated characters who embark on a shared journey of mutual respect and understanding. They talk, they disagree, they teach each other things, they clash, they laugh, they get in trouble, they build respect for each other, and they witness a swath of the world in which many of their fellow Americans are blindly bereft of any sense of moral equality. When Green Book is hyperfocused on the relationship between these two men, the film is fast-paced and provocative in a way that rarely feels artificial.
Part of the narrative deals with racism in the way Tony deals with things: it attacks them head-on, running loudly into the problem without any real plan as to what a solution might be. In one scene set on the side of the road in the pouring rain, Tony declares he’s “blacker” than Shirley because he listens to Aretha Franklin and eats fried chicken. The dialogue from both characters here is brave and truthful, an explicit and in-your-face broadside of belonging and the judgment of others. But part of Green Book deals with racism in the way Shirley addresses things: quietly, subtly, and with a great deal more maturity. A wordless scene in which a group of black fieldworkers in the South are stunned to see Tony working for Shirley provides one of the film’s simplest and most powerful moments.
The performances from Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen can’t be understated. This is an engrossing and exceptional instance of two actors creating some of the most memorable characters of their respective careers; for the always-memorable Ali and Mortensen, that’s really saying something. Ali’s Shirley is so unlike any character he’s played to date, seemingly calm and collected but positively burning with rage inside. Mortensen’s Tony is the flip side, of course, chewing scenery with his boorishness while still exuding a deceptively big heart beneath his wrinkled shirt. But there are plenty of movies with great performances that fail to click with each other, and the real achievement of acting here is how well Ali and Mortensen play off each other. Their chemistry makes their eventual friendship feel like it’s been truly earned.
Which brings us back to the final few minutes of the film, a somewhat sudden and unearned moment of closure that very nearly spoils all the hard work Green Book did elsewhere. Upon returning to New York, Shirley accepts Tony’s invitation to Christmas dinner. Tony’s family, after a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of bewilderment, appear to be instantaneously absolved of the racist microaggressions we’ve seen them exhibit throughout the movie. This, it seems, is the perfect ending for a road movie about race relations. That’s meant as a sharp criticism in this case, because an imperfect ending could have elevated Green Book into a truly great film about internalized racism. None of Tony’s family members have earned this arc, and so the conclusion comes across not only as uninspired but as if it’s missed the entire point of the other 99% of the movie.
It’s an air ball that probably stands out more because of Green Book‘s strengths, and on the whole it’s a good thing that the film has been thrust into the light by the festival success at TIFF. We should view it together, talk about it, laugh at it, disagree with it. We should try to learn something from it regardless of whether that lesson is mashed into our faces, delivered with subtlety, or borne of an uneasy feeling at what may have been left unsaid. And we should witness a swath of the world in which many Americans are blindly bereft of any sense of moral equality, perhaps at times even recognizing that world as one we live in today. We can transform that world with the help of political art like Green Book, but we have to earn it first.