Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
I’ve been writing about arthouse movies in this space recently, and very happy to do so. Now here I am looking at a Tom Hanks World War II picture being released on Apple TV. But let me try to make the case that this is a little movie in its own way, and is close to being an avant-garde experience, with an abstract field of action and an invented, inscrutable language.
Greyhound is based on a novel by couldn’t-be-more-old-school C. S. Forester, the author of the Horatio Hornblower books and the source material for The African Queen; Hanks adapted the screenplay himself. Director Aaron Schneider did the enjoyable Get Low and does unspectacular work here amid Greyhound’s cramped, limited spaces, but one assumes Hanks had a good share of influence over what we see on screen. It is exactly the kind of project that would never get made in the multiplex world: geared for grown-ups, middle-budgeted, process-driven. You may find it thoroughly middlebrow, and yet these elements place it outside the mainstream. I wonder whether the film would have been made at all in the pre-Netflix (and pre-Apple TV) era.
The story takes place over the course of a few days in 1942, as Hanks’s destroyer captain runs cover for a convoy of supply ships traveling to Europe. It’s a rough crossing in every way, and the German U-Boats score hits against the convoy. The captain forgoes sleep and food while improvising the group’s survival. That’s it for story, as the movie clocks in at 91 minutes including a very long end-credits roll.
Most of those credits are for CGI, and the first thing that will strike you about Greyhound is that it looks completely artificial. The seas are presumably computer-generated, and surely most of the ships are (although some of the action on Hanks’s ship was shot on the USS Kidd, a preserved WWII destroyer docked in Baton Rouge). The fakey surroundings may put you off, but in a strange way, they actually add to the stripped-down nature of the action, which borders on Kabuki. This movie is a virtually unbroken string of barked military jargon, of orders given and repeated, of people moving around the ship’s bridge in mathematical vectors. We see ships blow up and nearly collide, sure, but most of the movie takes place on a strategic grid, where getting yourself in the wrong place on a line will result in a torpedo either passing you or hitting you.
Watching this metronomically play out is weirdly satisfying. Hanks humanizes it through his dogged presence, and there are a few other good faces (the main recognizable one belongs to Stephen Graham, the rude gangster in The Irishman who keeps insulting Hoffa). But the interchangeability of many of the men seems intentional. The very beginning of the film (Hanks proposing to Elisabeth Shue in the only non-aquatic scene) and the very end feel like somebody’s idea of adding a required bit of sentiment; I wish they weren’t in the film. And I’m not sure why the religious thread is there (evidently it’s from the novel), but it feels like that same somebody’s idea of softening the edges of otherwise hard-edged material. (Director Schneider allows himself one moment of self-conscious poetry: In the midst of battle, the camera takes an albatross’s-eye view and rises above the clouds, revealing the pure green Aurora Borealis hovering peacefully there.)
So in a strange way, you could almost play the thing on a bare stage, with the cast jabbering incessantly about belaying that order and taking the rudder hard to port. It may not be a great movie, but—forgiving its limited bits of nonsense—there is something clean and compelling about how Greyhound operates, full steam ahead and outside the main.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.