2022 | rated R | starring Cate Blanchett, Mark Strong | written & directed by Todd Field | 2h 38m |

Watching Todd Field’s challenging character drama Tar is to be dipped in a swirl of emotions, questions and current events that it doesn’t quite answer, but complicates. I was reminded of the writing adage, when it comes to a current event topic that you feel passionately about one side – that’s not the story you write, you write the one that you haven’t come to a conclusion on. That at least feels like what Field is doing in Tar, using his central character to pose the questions raised by the culture surrounding feminism, power dynamics, cancel culture and separating art from the artist and instead of pounding his conclusions down our throat, he complicates them at every turn. This is what movies should do and it’s what the movie-making factory has completely lost the plot on.

Lydia Tar (Cate Blanchett) is a world famous music conductor and EGOT recipient currently in residence at the Berlin Philharmonic putting together a recording of the previously unrecorded Mahler’s “Fifth Symphony”. Between interviews with a fawning press, meetings with financers and teaching ungrateful Julliard students, her tightly controlled and manicured world starts to unravel by accusations of psychologically abusing the students in her orchestra.

Field builds the world around his fictional lead so completely that Tar feels like a bio-pic. At the same time it is hyper contemporary, existing exactly in the year it was released with passing references to the orchestra just returning together after Covid and wading through still unresolved issues of cancel culture and elevating talent or art over the personal life of the artist. It’s a delightfully enigmatic film tossed like a hand grenade into a culture that runs off of 3-word buzz phrases and black and white caricatures. While those neck-deep in that culture will be quick to call Tar and abuser and a monster, the film takes a more clinical look through lenses of social media posts, emails and edited Wikipedia pages, where Tar herself’s opinion on power dynamics shifts based on the subject and their work.

The film’s central challenge is one of separating the art from the artist and Field complicates it at every turn. Instead of approaching the subject on-the-nose (the Michelle & Robert King approach) with a ripped from the headlines story of an actor, musician or athlete whose work we all share, the film’s delving into the field of classical music conducting is far more niche and removed. Lydia Tar’s work is mostly known within her own professional classical music industry sphere. The way the film talks about conducting, keeping time and leading the orchestra is even more inside-baseball than that of Whiplash (and much more subtle in terms of it’s Quest for Perfection abuse theme). The film then complicates that by showing Tar conducting in an utterly bizarre way and carefully crafting her own image as if to make us question how much of her own supposed talent is driving this popularity. Does it undermine the message? Does Bache committing the sins of being both a womanizer and a white man undermine his music? Does Tar’s defense of Bache’s musical contributions still ring true even if it’s ultimately self-serving? Does a student in Tar’s class make a valid point even if he’s not mature enough to argue it fully? The film is constantly throwing up questions and then questioning those questions. Running in a circle to undermine itself and challenge what we’re seeing.

It gets hazier when one of star’s former students commits suicide, something Tar and the film treat as an intrusion on her path to professional greatness until it, left unchecked, grows and grows. Even then any abuses Tar commits are all suggested. Glances, Emails. A competition in which she opens up the big solo to auditions and forces the first chair try out for her own part. The film imprisons us in Tar’s head and then gives us breadcrumbs to try to crawl out as she starts to collapse professionally and mentally. We can chose to stay or go. And when the collapse comes it, it is as royal as it is surreal.

A movie like this soars on the back of the lead performance. Blanchett is mesmerizing in the role from minute one. Her commitment to bringing Tar to life and showing us all sides of her in a kaleidoscope of perceptions. From the way it’s shot to lit, Tar feels like a David Fincher movie. Field shots it in low, natural light and in still, wide shots to create the impression we’re intruding on the conversations of those in an elite world behind closed doors. One of the film’s most dynamic scenes, Tar arguing with her very Gen-Z, social media-driven student, is delivered in one take in such a subtle way that it does what this now over-used-as-a-gimmick trick is actually supposed to do: drag us a long for the ride.

And then there is the writing. The delicious, clever interchange of monologues and back-and-forth patter where Blanchett fires out one witty, acerbic line after another. This is the kind of script an actor gets to chews on and Blanchett does so without going over the top. Fields script rips into every contemporary theme that floats into the scope of his story taking equal aim at all involved. Tar is a clinical movie about a thrashing debate where private lives collide with public work, where history collides with modernity, where kindness has no place in the pursuit of greatness. Where psychopaths can hide in plain site and it’s up to us to determine our role in allowing that. The art or the artist.

Tar is a hard film to put in a box. It’s not quite a Descent into Madness movie and it’s not quite a professional procedural and it’s not quite a thriller. But it’s also a bit of all of these. A bit Aronofsky, a bit Fincher, a bit De Palma, a bit Whiplash and dialed down into a controlled burn that gives it a new, fresh, feel. Field takes a look inside this superficially glossy corner of the culture and drags out both those that want to burn it all down and those that want to gate keep who gets to be let in.

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