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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Alfie Allen Impresses In A Chilling Account Of The Radicalization Of The Oklahoma Bomber

“We have to do something,” says one of the many shadowy extremists who populate the fringes of Mike Ott’s tense drama McVeigh, a condensed account of the events that led Timothy McVeigh, an Iraq war veteran, to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma on 19 April 1995, killing 168 people and injuring 680 more. His close ties to white supremacist Richard Snell, a convicted murderer put to death by lethal injection that same day, might — reasonably — lead one, and especially people of color, to wonder why this man needs the oxygen of publicity, nearly 23 years after his own execution. But Mike Ott’s film is a rare study of the radicalization of white working-class Americans, a phenomenon that went overground in Washington DC on 6 January 2021.

Ott carefully keeps us at arm’s length from his subject at all times, and his direction makes that clear from the outset. When we’re not following McVeigh, played with impressive, surly opacity by Britain’s Alfie Allen, we’re observing him, almost like wildlife and usually in his car. Ott uses master shots, or medium close-ups, then slowly closes in, but we never get too close. Much is left to the imagination; for example, in the opening scenes, McVeigh is pulled over for speeding. While the traffic cop writes the ticket, McVeigh looks stressed, and Ott’s camera takes us towards the subject of his anxiety: the glove compartment.

Whatever is actually in there is of no importance, since McVeigh is already at odds with any kind of authority — the violent siege in 1993 of the Branch Davidians, a commune led by David Koresh, weighs particularly heavy on his mind. But McVeigh keeps his head down, manning a stall at guns and ammo festivals, where he sells bumper stickers for $2 a pop (“The day the government outlaws guns is the day I’ll be an outlaw,” reads one). This brings him into contact with Frédéric (Anthony Carrigan), who is aware of McVeigh’s friendship with Snell (Tracy Letts) but will leave him to stew for the time being.

McVeigh’s only friend in the world seems to be Terry (Brett Gelman), a nerdy, racist redneck with a Filipino wife. Terry encourages McVeigh in his anti-government stance but becomes alarmed when McVeigh starts to put his thoughts into action, buying industrial quantities of fertilizer and barrels of nitromethane. Frédéric, however, is there for him, and encourages McVeigh when no one else will. “We need some real f*ckin’ soldiers who aren’t scared,” he says, while remaining conveniently on the sidelines.

Deliberately austere non-fiction stories of this kind are a genre to themselves, and, for reference, McVeigh plays out much Alexandre Moors’ 2013 underrated Sundance entry Blue Caprice, based on the 2002 DC beltway sniper attacks, or, more pertinently, Gus Van Sant’s Palme d’Or winner Elephant (2003), which took its cue from the Columbine school murders. There’s even an outside chance that Ott might have also been influenced by Spanish director Jaime Rosales’ almost wordless Bullet in the Head (2008), in which Basque terrorists carry out a hit on two policemen. As in that film, ambient sound is often cranked up to incredibly uncomfortable levels in lieu of dialogue.

Questions of taste will no doubt flurry around this movie, especially with a Brit in the lead, but McVeigh nevertheless shows the pipeline, or perhaps it’s a conveyor belt, that exists to convert fragile egos into supposed “lone wolf” terrorists. Given the fractious nature of American politics right now, Ott’s film might be too on the nose to catch a commercial audience, and its sudden and confusing coda is really too much to take in, being an information overload that — it seems — tries to replicate the jumbled madness of right and wrong going on in McVeigh’s head (sorry, but it’s way too late to be throwing in a near-subliminal reference to the CIA’s controversial MK Ultra program).

Which is a shame, because McVeigh does have something new to say about radicalization, that it’s not about religion or race or mental illness but a way to fill an empty vessel. And as Timothy McVeigh shocked and showed the world, the devil will always find work for idle hands to do.

Title: McVeigh
Festival: Tribeca (Spotlight Narrative)
Sales agent: Verve Talent & Literary Agency
Director: Mike Ott
Screenwriters: Mike Ott, Alex Gioulakis
Cast: Alfie Allen, Brett Gelman, Ashley Benson, Anthony Carrigan, Tracy Letts
Running time:  1 hr 30 min

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