Why do people make sad films? Something I don’t understand why anyone would want to make a film that is just so utterly depressing, just like how I am not entirely sure why audiences would want to subject themselves to a truly sad experience. Then I remember that films like Her exist, and it reminds me that as a collective, humanity experiences loneliness, and even if we don’t particularly enjoy that feeling (let’s draw a distinction between being solitary and being lonely), we can all relate to it, and when a film like Her displays a common feeling that we can all share because most of us have experienced it at some point in our lives, then it isn’t difficult to see why these films become masterpieces. If there is a 21st-century cinematic masterpiece, it is most certainly Her.
Her is set in the near-distant future, in Los Angeles. Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely man who is going through a depressing divorce. He works as a writer, writing letters for loving couples and individuals with very happy lives. On a whim, he signs up for a programme where individuals are assigned personalized operating systems based on their personalities and needs – and he is assigned an operating system that goes by the name of Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), and somehow, they manage to fall in love with one another, despite the fact that Theodore is a living, breathing human and Samantha is a piece of software. The film follows the progress of their relationship and tackles some incredibly difficult themes throughout.
I love Spike Jonze. Being John Malkovich was a postmodern cinematic masterpiece and the very definition of a metafictional film. Adaptation was an incredible dark comedy that showed us a new side of Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and the beloved character actor Chris Cooper. Even Where the Wild Things Are was an extraordinary piece of cinematic fantasy (I personally wasn’t a fan, but I recognize the brilliance) – yet somehow, Her managed to be Jonze at his very best. Much like Jonze’s previous work, it is an offbeat and often surreal look at society through the lens of being futuristic, whether in terms of setting, themes or plot. It handles delicate human emotions with gusto and brilliance, and shows that Jonze is one of the most humane filmmakers working today, because he brings invaluable insight into the human condition into every one of his films, and he manages to get into the heads of his subject matter, not only in Her, but in all of his films (and quite literally in Being John Malkovich). There aren’t many filmmakers working today that can claim to having made one of the greatest love stories in cinematic history – but Spike Jonze can confidently say that he belongs to that elite group, because Her is one of the most beautiful and cerebrally-intense love stories ever told.
There are a few undeniable facts in cinema, and one such fact is that Joaquin Phoenix is one of the greatest actors of all time. Anyone who doesn’t believe me needs to watch absolutely any of his films. Whether you love him or hate him, his talent is immense and undeniably present, and I cannot recall ever seeing him appear in a film and not been absolutely astounded with his brilliance. Perhaps he is remembered fondly (or rather, with intense ridiculousness disbelief) for his stunt in 2010, where he claimed to be retiring from acting to pursue a career in rap music that turned out to be an elaborate prank pulled for a mockumentary he was making with Casey Affleck (I haven’t seen I’m Still Here, but considering how much I adore Joaquin Phoenix, and my recent development of adoration towards the career of Academy Award winner Casey Affleck, I will probably check it out very soon)
That stunt did manage to give Joaquin one of the most challenging and brilliant career runs that he is still firmly in the centre of – The Master, Her, The Immigrant, Inherent Vice and Irrational Man are an impressive run of films for any actor, and honestly, he is astounding in each and every one of them. I will go out on a limb and say that he was truly extraordinary, more than any of the others, in Her, because most of the time, it was a solo effort from Joaquin. Other aspects of the film did come into play, it was Joaquin’s unbelievably complex performance that gave this film life. If it weren’t for his brilliant work in The Master, I would easily say this is his greatest performance (and it might be, it changes for me from day to day). Joaquin is just incredible in Her. He is funny, heartbreaking, brutally honest and radically human in his performance. It is a side of the great actor we rarely see, but I am so glad we had the opportunity to see him, because he is truly an actor deserving of praise beyond mere words. He is the best actor of his generation by a long stretch, and I hope he continues to be this brilliant.
Now onto the other major part of Her – and the titular character. Scarlett Johansson lends her unique and iconic voice to the role, and I honestly can’t recall a vocal performance being this moving (actually I can, but let’s not get into that right now). It was tricky to get the voice right, because there needed to be something there to support it, since the character has no physical presence and thus the performance is built entirely on the vocal performance. Johansson certainly delivered, and I was moved to tears towards the end of this film – she managed to prove that a vocal performance is far more than just recording a voice – it is as much acting as any other kind of acting, and Johansson actually made me tear up with her incredible performance. I think she is one of the more talented actresses working today, and while her bigger-budget performances may bring home the dollars, I am glad she is adamant about also giving smaller films the benefit of her talents.
The supporting cast of Her is memorable, even if some of the performances aren’t very big. Amy Adams can do no wrong, and taking on the role of supportive best friend, she has her own highly emotional arc. Part of me wanted to explore her character a bit more, but the other part of me is satisfied with her role in the story. Chris Pratt, at this point not being the huge star he is today, once again plays the adorably dumb supporting character. There isn’t really much to say about him here, but I just wanted to once again bring up the fact that I am so astounded that he managed to go from goofball comedic actor to an actually big star, which I think is wonderful. Finally, Rooney Mara. I can’t explain how much I adore her, and even in a supporting role here, she absolutely shines beyond belief. She is so clearly a legend in the making and if she isn’t already one of the best actresses of her generation, she certainly will be in the next few years.
There is a YouTube channel called Every Frame a Painting, where films are analyzed for their visuals. Somehow, Her is one of the few films where literally every single shot could be called a work of art. Hoyte van Hoytema is a photographic genius – in terms of Hollywood films, he is still relatively new, but he clearly is an artist (even in the often dreadful Interstellar, his cinematography was incredible). Her presents us with a very sad and bleak world, but one that is so fiendish in its beauty. Every single moment of this film just blew me away, and the visual aestethetic of it was a major part of that.
Also, the score was absolutely incredible. Arcade Fire is one of the best bands producing music today, and their score to this film was subtle but effective. It was heartbreaking beyond belief and as a whole, it contributed to the melancholic tone of the film. Listening to the score in isolation still brings tears to my eyes, because it taps into the universal meaning music can have as a uniting force. It is a sad yet very hopeful score, and while there are so many aspects of this film to praise, the cinematography and the score are really what brought it to the next level and made it a masterpiece.
Cinema connects us. It makes us one audience. We can all see parts of our lives in films, and the more emotionally resonant a film , the more brilliant of a film it is. Her was not an easy film for me, and I expect for quite a few people as well. It didn’t touch on anything specific, but it did cover some truly intense themes that many people go through in their day-to-day lives. Honestly, very few films made me feel the way Her did – it left me in awe, and shocked me, leaving me boldly shaken with its pure brilliance. A film that can make the audience feel something so intense, and elicit a response this powerful, it has to be seen as a great piece of art, right?
Her is a masterpiece, and one that left me speechless. I have seen it a few times now and it still shakes me to my very core. I think it is a beautifully composed, wonderful piece of filmmaking that features the greatest actor of his generation giving a truly memorable performance. As a whole, Her is a film that will make you weep and also give you hope. It is a film of such sheer and incredible beauty, I cannot stop thinking about it, nearly four years since it came around. It is a beautiful film and I just adore it beyond words.