The Movie Waffler New Release Review - STARS AT NOON | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - STARS AT NOON

Stars at Noon review
A troubled American journalist sees a mysterious Englishman as her way of escaping Nicaragua.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Claire Denis

Starring: Margaret Qualley, Joe Alwyn, Benny Safdie, Danny Ramirez

Stars at Noon poster

Graham Greene meets Zalman King in Stars at Noon, Claire Denis' (with co-writers Léa Mysius and Andrew Litvack) adaptation of Denis Johnson's 1986 novel of the same name. Here, the usual labyrinthine plotting of espionage thrillers is eschewed for a character focussed genre deconstruction, not unlike those of Robert Altman and Alan Rudolph, and it often resembles a James Bond movie from the perspective of the "Bond girl."

Presumably for budget and convenience, Denis has transplanted the novel's setting of the Nicaraguan civil war of the '80s to the same country in the recent COVID era. The politics haven't changed much and the pandemic adds an extra layer of uncertainty to a setting that serves as a sort of limbo for its protagonists: Trish (Margaret Qualley), a young American journalist, and Daniel (Joe Alwyn), a mysterious Englishman, both of whom are desperate to get out of the country for their own reasons.

Stars at Noon review

Having had her passport confiscated due to an article she wrote disparaging the Nicaraguan authorities, Trish is forced to trade sex for money and favours with various government and military figures. Her editor (John C. Reilly, cameoing via Zoom) cuts her loose, uninterested in her politicised writing (he does run a travel magazine after all), leaving her struggling to get across the border to Costa Rica, where the plight of an American might be treated more favourably.

While drinking in a hotel she meets Daniel, who pays her $50 for a night of sex. There seems to be something approaching a genuine connection between the two, and Trish is reluctant to leave him the next morning. They agree to meet again, but Trish spends the day following Daniel, who claims to be working for an oil company but suspiciously carries a pistol in his shaving bag. When Trish sees Daniel speaking with a man she recognises as a Costa Rican cop (Danny Ramirez), she confronts him. Daniel claims ignorance regarding the man's identity, but Trish assures him that they'll be followed by him if they leave the hotel. She's correct, as Daniel is indeed tailed.

Stars at Noon review

Daniel's true motives are left ambiguous, and Alwyn plays the character in a monotone manner that makes him difficult to read. While he's not the most charismatic actor that might have been cast (Robert Pattinson and Taron Egerton were both forced to pull out of the role due to scheduling conflicts), there's something about his one-dimensional nature that helps us to see him through the eyes of Trish, who comes to view him as her best bet in getting out of the country. That said, it's a little difficult to buy when Trish begins to develop genuine feelings for this enigmatic stranger, as the requisite spark just isn't really there.

A chase thriller that barely moves its heels off the starting line, Stars at Noon may prove frustrating for anyone expecting the usual beats of the espionage genre. But that's simply not what Denis is interested in exploring here. Rather she's broken down the well-worn premise of two attractive strangers thrown together in tumultuous circumstances and given some thought as to how such a scenario might actually play out in reality. During the airing of the hit TV show 24, there was a running joke about how Kiefer Sutherland's protagonist was able to stay awake for 24 hours without ever having to use the bathroom. That's certainly not a critique that could be levelled at Stars at Noon, as in decidedly Gallic fashion, Denis hones in on the inconveniences of bodily functions. Trish and Daniel are perpetually drenched in sweat and spend much of the narrative trying to remove the stink from their clothes and attempting to track down shampoo and towels.

Stars at Noon review

A longstanding critique of movies like this is how they centre western protagonists and ask us to worry about their safety while faceless locals are mown down in the background, often due to helping said westerners. It's a problem that Stars at Noon can't shake off, but Denis isn't particularly concerned with making her protagonists likeable; in fact Trish reacts to one local man's death with a distasteful joke. Other supporting characters get their moments that allow us to see the trouble Trish and Daniel are bringing upon them, like the long-suffering clerk at Trish's rundown hotel and a lingering shot on a man who has become collateral damage by trying to aid the ungrateful pair.

Nor is Denis interested in the political nuances of Nicaragua, which are so vaguely referenced here that it might as well be the sort of fictional Central American country where the protagonists of 1980s TV shows were always getting into trouble. Denis is more invested in the setting as a sort of purgatory, and the empty pandemic era streets and hotels bars greatly add to this feeling. There's a wonderfully dreamlike scene where Trish and Daniel dance in an otherwise empty club to a song by frequent Denis collaborators Tindersticks, whose smoky jazz score adds to the Altman/Rudolph vibes. And this is very much a movie of vibes rather than plot, of sensuality rather than seriousness. Watch it on a sticky summer night for best effect.

Stars at Noon
 is on UK/ROI VOD from June 19th.

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