The Manchurian Candidate, the 2004 version, is a rare thing. Namely, it’s a remake that doesn’t make me barf.
Truth be told, it’s a remake lovers of quality films everywhere should flock to. In something as a rare as a great film from the late stages of Al Pacino’s career, this remake actually improves on the original. Significantly.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why. Maybe it’s the claustrophobic, sweaty atmosphere created by director Jonathan Demme’s invasive camera angles. Perhaps it’s Denzel Washington and Liev Schreiber’s understated performances as key players Bennett Marco and Raymond Shaw, respectively. They are certainly both more restrained than Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey were back in 1962.
But if I opted for Meryl Streep’s equally terrifying and brilliant turn as Eleanor Shaw as the recent for the remake’s effectiveness, I’d be hitting bullseye.
Domineering mother doesn’t even begin to describe Streep’s Shaw. Compared to downtrodden and mentally manipulated (literally with a capital L) Raymond, Norman Bates had it easy in Psycho (1960).
Streep’s Machiavellian matriarch owns every scene she’s in. None more so than when she’s convincing senior politicians to nominate her more-than slightly altered son for Vice President.
It’s a lesson in how to bend a room of people to your will and away from their own. Everything she does communicates she has way more power than anybody in the room without ever actually having to say it.
To begin with, that means showing a deliberate aloofness. Having entered the room, Eleanor continues to make simpering introductions to the “important” people at the meeting, even as Zeljko Ivanek’s Vaughn Utly, the clear chair of the meeting, is talking.
Her introductions are made with routinely faked niceties and spoken with almost mock sincerity. She stays cold and patient as prominent members of the room browbeat her with reasons why they simply won’t do what she’s asking (insert demanding here).
But Eleanor isn’t passive. She’s in full Cobra mode, coiled behind phoney civility, malevolently waiting for the optimum moment to strike.
When it comes, Eleanor launches into a staggeringly sudden and violent rant. Streep spits the words into a whirlwind she carefully creates with frenzied gestures and frantic delivery.
The faster she speaks, the more animated she becomes, the more the mood in the room changes in her favour. This isn’t acceptance, it’s surrender to an awesome force none of the other characters can tame.
This is verbal seduction sledgehammer-style.
Streep delivers it with astonishingly formidable gusto and enough maniacally exaggerated mannerisms to make you believe an alien is about to pop out of her chest, point to the camera and yell, ‘I NEED YOU!’
Enjoy this remarkable contrast of an Actress under control creating inspired and unsettling chaos on screen: