“Legion” and its Soft Creeping Terror.
It is not rare — in an outsized world of fantasy — to encounter mutants with telekinetic prowess. Marvel, DC and Capcom have graduated an impressive number of mind magicians, for which to evolve a formidable army. From Professor X’ scholarly finesse, Jean Gray’s timorous explosiveness, Emma Frost’s quixotic technique, Scarlett Witch’ graceful psychosis, to Eleven’s quiet command, the telekinetic community is pulsing with sealed pressure. It’s difficult not to imagine a girl’s night out with Jean, Emma, Scarlett and Eleven in a cozy downtown pub, giddy with Bloody Mary’s and Eggos, playing darts without touching them, discussing how not to get fat, and having clean old fun.
The idea of mind control — swirling heavy matter prompted by mental command — is a cinematic banality, and its raw physicality, the solidity of shattering glittering suspension of material has become a cinematic standard and expectation. In “Legion”, a Fantasy-Horror motion picture which airs on FX, creator Noah Hawley takes the traditional suppositions of telekinesis to sumptuous new heights, not imposingly, but rationally, accompanied by an impressive degree of grit, fire and passion. Hawley’s defamiliarization of structured expectancies is vivid throughout his work, and his willingness to operate in inverse hints at the depth, the complexity and the radicalism of his vision. Hawley is not merely thinking outside the box, he is ripping a piece off it and making another box.
“Legion” explores the misadventures of David, a seemingly tortured schizophrenic, played with demented dramatic precariousness by Dan Stevens. David (Dan Stevens) is locked away at Division 3, a government facility for the mentally disturbed, and spends his days taking medications and listening to Lenny (Aubrey Plaza) his talkative friend. There he meets Sydney Barrett (Rachel Keller), who has an anti-social disorder and despises to be touched, he becomes attracted and they begin an uncanny romance that excludes contact. Sydney announces one night that she is leaving and David who has grown very fond of her is crushed.
The next day, while she leaves, David cannot help but plant a kiss on her lips, an action that sets the story’s convoluted plot in motion. A robust force of light drowns the facility and they switch bodies and Sydney now in David’s body who is unable to handle the sheer power of telepathy destroys the hospital killing nearly everyone. When they do switch back, a group of mutants from another government division rescue David from Division 3 to help him conquer his demons, control his abilities and use him to win a war that we know very little about. Together, Dr. Melanie (Jean Smart), Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris) the memory specialist and Cary Louder (Bill Irwin) a two faced multi-sided mutant help David understand his powers and neutralize or rather completely destroy Lenny, the evil manifestation within himself.
They are bound by a common grief, shared experiences and similar terrors.
It is uncommon for a cinematic piece to contain both its self-critique and self-justification, but that is what “Legion” presents in its opening sequences. For Hawley’s entire proclivity towards invention and originality, the opening scenes are surprisingly tame and obedient to convention: The camera stealthily roams through the corridors of time, tracking David’s growth from childhood purity to deranged adulthood — the traditional understanding of time and circumstance. Sensationally, the cut ends with a shocking suicide, but a crackling light sparks it to life, an ingenious swivel back to the present. Hawley’s unorthodox perspectives of time and consequence do not stand alone; even the wavering chant of “Happy Jack” in the background is a paradoxical miracle that nods towards some brooding outsized significance. What Hawley achieves with Legion essentially, is not to use the past as a ready explanation for the present, but as a passcode to the ineffable.
Hawley’s vision is hardly trivial or elitist.
To him, time is not a placid linear progression; it’s a tapering sticky web of disjointed events. His devotion to complexity is almost evangelical; it is a persistent, living breathing presence within the text. Hawley lets new found ideas burst forth like an epiphany, and the fervency of his message, his sustained belief systems are predictive models for the future. It’s a relief that Legion provides new answers to old questions, within the confines of Hawley’s crisp voyeuristic editing, time is dense with sharp memories and his emphasis on revisit and return is a channel to contemplate semi-solid dimensions in which the borders of surrealism and wakefulness are tantalizingly close. He seeks to blur the lines not to define them.
Another dissent from fantasy’s organized framework is Hawley’s thoughtfully conceived tactic of conflict and combat. In “Legion” the directors strip down the genre’s heavily physical perspective and lend it a softer, more organic approach. Many of the showdowns between Lenny — David’s demonic entity — and David are less a matter of brute strength and more an issue of mental preponderance, and the defenses to Lenny’s cheeky vindictive attacks require a remarkable grasp of mental architecture. These concepts of perceptual warfare are actualized by way of whimsical absurd dreamlike landscapes, populated with significant elements of identity and nostalgia. The deepest, most personal objects and memories become charged with meaning and Lenny employs them as tools of terror. From an animated character lifted from a childhood bedtime story, to an old friend, Hawley demonstrates a wealth of references and proves to us that terror need not announce itself; it can be a quiet creeping thing.
Because spiritual and mental interaction has long since been a subject of cinematic rarity and speculation, fantasy creators are challenged with the burden of smuggling in a robust point of view that propels storytelling. In Hawley’s case, his gaze is both observatory and participatory, trumpeting a cinematic voice that is as passive as it is loud, unfolding mental textures that are both three dimensional and facile. We are at once the performers on stage and the spectators seated in distant galleries.
The image of a man speaking to himself has been stereotypically married to the notion of some mental disorder, but beneath our rational consciousness’s are neatly folded worlds of torment, harnessed by comically orchestrated chaos. Hawley uses his stock characters and his stylized world to thicken our awareness of this newly discovered madness and as a channel to teach that, we must never, on any level, take ourselves as the calibration point of normalcy — we are after all, villains, not heroes in our own stories. For all the thrill and mystery in the genre of genre of fantasy, logic remains an indelible aspect, for the main reason that: life is interesting. We are comforted by routine and frightened by what we cannot comprehend. In Legion, the theories are a bulwark of believability and the backstories reach the deepest parts of our hearts.
It is easy to lose ourselves in the mind numbing magic of fantasy, but to keep us there; sturdy mutual connections of identity must stretch from the very depths of our being to the narrative fabric of the telling. One of such moments of choking nostalgia surfaces in Episode 5, which for me, I cherish in a way that I cannot describe. In that scene, David sits on a bed, legs crossed, yoga-style plucking a banjo and crooning a haunting rendition of “Rainbow Connection” lifted from the Muppets Movie. He’s shaken and quivering and misses home so much that it’s hard to breathe, and diabolically, I found myself groping for my inhaler. I also adored Kermit the Frog as a young boy and my mother, on those long ago summer evenings lulled me to sleep with that fond and gentle melody. I saw this scene with a good friend and we both watched, terrified to breathe as David fingered the banjo, his voice registering a low, yawning, trembling note. By the end of the song, she was sobbing.