Wednesday, 4 February 2015

A Serious Man Who Stares at Goats: An Analysis of Two Published Reviews

Atkinson is not so much arguing for the actual film but, as is the case with all their films, is arguing for the Coen brother’s attitude towards the narrative stance they are using the film to tell.

This is an analysis I wrote back in 2009 as a first year Film and Screen Studies assignment. Together with its companion pieceChavtastic: A Review of Andrea Arnold's Wasp, this comprised a single assignment in which I had to demonstrate my understanding of film reviewership and analysis. 

Additionally, as I eventually elected to restart my first year, I had re-submitted a new version of this assignment the following year.

The writing style of this piece is very clunky, as I was still mastering my understanding of English grammar at the time. 

An Analysis of Two Published Reviews

Comprising itself of an analysis of two published reviews, this essay, will deconstruct and determine what techniques each reviewer is employing to inform the readership of a films strengths and weaknesses. The two reviews that shall be discussed are A Serious Man (1) by Michael Atkinson, from Sight and Sound Magazine (2), and The Men Who Stare At Goats (3) By Damon Wise, from Empire Magazine (4). 

“Schmuck in suburbia” (2) is the title which headlines the review of A Serious Man (1) and these three words summarise the entire argument laid out by Atkinson (2). The review’s title, the very fact that it is not the film’s title, immediately tells the reader that this will be an informed review which will give its opinion of the film through its argument of theme: “Argue if you like that this movie’s philosophical inquiries are answered by the Coen’s ridicule – that life, like film, is merely a thin joke by a cruel God or gods” opposed to just a simple evaluation (2). Atkinson is not so much arguing for the actual film but, as is the case with all their films, is arguing for the Coen brother’s attitude towards the narrative stance they are using the film to tell: “The Coen’s have only occasionally stumbled into a fascinating world-view (for all its genre irony, 1990’s Miller’s Crossing gets my vote), because they are instead masters of minutiae” (2).

A Serious Man

With Wise’s review of The Men Who Stare At Goats (3) it is made apparent from the first sentence that this review’s angle is the film’s star George Clooney: “In the thirteen years since he traded TV soaps for the big screen George Clooney has become Hollywood’s second biggest attraction...” (4). Indeed, the review is built around Clooney and his career up until this point and wise goes on to talk about the other notable players: Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey: “And when Bridges, Clooney and Spacey are all on screen, The Men Who Stare At Goats feels most alive” (4) and it becomes apparent that the only real strength Wise can drawn from the film is the deadpan performances of its actors: “(Two guys driving along in the desert) and there’s very little in the way of subplot” (4) . However, this is exactly the slant Wise uses for arguing: that the lack of any complex plot does not withdraw from the entertainment value and should not deny an audience from watching it: “The Men Who Stare At Goats, like Inglorious Bastards before it, marks a return to the lost idea that there ought to be some fun in movies” (4).

In terms of what David Bordwell says are the four components of a good film review (5) while both the reviews contain all these elements there are a few exceptions. For instance, in both reviews the plot synopsis is not even located within the text of the review but rather in a separate section, Wise’s is in a box with cast and release date etc and the plot synopsis of Atkinson’s is located towards the end of the review section (2,4). Another major difference is Wise’s review does not open with a summary judgement of the film as he begins his review by discussing its star (4). Apart from these two instances, however, the bulk of both adhere pretty concisely to Bordwell’s structure (5). 

The structures, now in terms of layout on the page, are quite similar; for both reviews serve as the headline review for their respective magazines and as such both have a bigger amount of space to play with compared to their counterparts, Atkinson’s is spread across two pages and Wise’s is spread across three (2,4). The text of each has been structured into columns and this is presumably to allow more to be placed on one page and it makes the review much easier to digest in a single sitting. Also Wise’s review is heavily laden with extra small pieces of information: the trivia section, the verdict box at the end and the approval ratings on the top bar allow the reader to digest the vital information and general opinion of the film without having to read the review (4).

Both reviews have images from their respective films which are present not only to supply an idea of their film’s visual look but also to verify and strengthen the points the reviewer is making. The most prominent image of the Atkinson review is a half page image of the films protagonist Larry being hugged by another character and this quite clearly verifies the film to be about a man in crisis: “Larry’s tragic story – caused as it is not by human folly but by a confluence of bad things (only beginning with his family and his income)” (2). Wise’s review has a whole page image on which stand the two leads, Clooney and McGregor, together with a look of bemusement in the middle of the desert which helps to convey what Wise says about the film having: “Male goofiness” (4). In each review they select images that best capture the essence of the film. 

It is with the respective Readership of each magazine that the main overriding difference and style of these two reviews suddenly becomes apparent. Sight and Sound, which is overseen by the BFI (British Film Institute), by its very nature has a much more intellectual, philosophical and art house approach to its appreciation of films whereas a magazine such as Empire tends to be less intellectually slanted and more just a general guide that any lover of film would be able to get their teeth into. For instance, in Wise’s argument, because his readership is aimed at a much more general audience, he decides that he will direct his argument towards the public figure of George Clooney (4). It would be very hard to imagine someone reading his argument that had not heard or even seen a film which starred Clooney or which he directed, indeed Wise even admits: “Clooney has become Hollywood’s second biggest attraction”, he is a household name (4). Wise’s argument, therefore, suddenly becomes much easier to convey and understand because he has used an already established archetype as an introduction into the argument but also by using the figure of Clooney as an example of the quality of the film: “it is not a film to be mulled over; it is, a bit like Clooney himself, a very slippery customer” (4). 

Atkinson, on the other hand, can afford to be more broadly intellectual in his stance because it is the film intellectual, someone with a deeply invested interest and understanding of film, who is the general readership of Sight and Sound (2). Atkinson can therefore use subjects such as cultural identity: “A Serious Man formed around the contest between the reasonless chaos of life and our traditional cultures’ desire to see order in it” (2) and philosophical reference: “there’s not much real discourse on hand, and no larger metaphysical ideas” (2) in relation to discussing a film text. Atkinson can also be confident that when he mentions as background information a particular film or filmmaker, i.e. American Beauty and Sam Mendes, (2) the reader will know who he is talking about and why he is referencing them. 

Ultimately, these two reviews are very similar for both have informed arguments and while they primarily adhere to the components of Bordwell’s structure there are a few exceptions to the rule (5). However, the main difference between the reviews comes from the readership each has been written for and this produces two very different styles: Atkinson is intellectual whereas Wise is more general (2, 4). 


A Serious Man FILM; directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. 105 minutes. United States: Universal Pictures, 2009.

Atkinson, Michael ‘Schmuck in suburbia’. Sight and Sound Magazine, volume 19, (12), 2009, pp. 44-45 & 74.

The Men Who Stare At Goats FILM; directed by Grant Heslov. 95 minutes. United States: Winchester Films, BBC Films, 2009. 

Wise, Damon ‘The Men Who Stare At Goats’. Empire magazine, (246), 2009, pp 54-56.

Bordwell, David. Making Meaning, pp 38, cited in Buckland, W. Teach Yourself Film Studies, Hodder and Stoughton Education, 2003, pp155.

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