In their experimental new film, Metallica endeavor to translate the anger and pain in their music into a visual medium. Directed by Nimród Antalis, Metallica Through the Neveris the band's second big-screen effort, the first being being the 2004 behind-the-scenes documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. That debut, created by filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, recorded singer James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich at each other's throats even with a full-time therapist on staff. The group's dysfunction was so severe it prompted Roger Ebert to ask in his review, "Why work with people you can't stand, doing work you're sick of, and that may be killing you?"
See also: Our review of Metallica: Through the Never
Through the Never is Metallica's opportunity to wrest back some control over its image. But the film's embrace of violent spectacle proves clumsy and dumb in ways the band's music isn't—especially when that violence appropriates and exploits black historical suffering to fuel and validate white anger.
Between the practiced intensity of the performers, the bug-eyed excitement of the audience onscreen, and the haunting (if clichéd) images of crosses, coffins, and a masked executioner on a medieval jousting horse—all in 3D and in IMAX proportions—Through the Never is designed to make viewers experience all five stages of losing their shit. Unlike most concert films, which are documentary-like in nature, this bold genre experiment aims for a new destination, somewhere between performance movie and narrative feature. Three-quarters of the running time is devoted to original concert footage, while the remainder follows a twentysomething everydude named Trip (Dane DeHaan), a blond, cherub-faced roadie with bags under his arms and his eyes, as he wanders through a post-apocalyptic landscape filled with rioting hordes.
The dialogue is minimal; most of the narrative is conveyed through motion and music. Sometimes the onscreen images illustrate (all too literally) the lyrics, but more often the band and the onscreen audience seems to be egging on the offstage action and violence. The result is something like a 92-minute music video—or, rather, an "album video."
There's a reason why Through the Never is trailblazing: It gives people what they don't want. Audiences watch concert films to get closer to a band, and this one actively defies that desire. That's because the film invests its emotional energies in Trip's surreal saga, which finds the kid fighting for his life in a world gone to hell while dutifully running a meaningless errand. (Hope that's not some coded message to Metallica's actual employees.)
If only the plot made any sense. Frustratingly, the "narrative" is a motley accumulation of incendiary images smushed together into an illogical, incoherent lump. In one scene, a rampaging mob and riot police tear at each other. Just a few minutes later, with no explanation, both groups join forces to beat on Trip. There's no rhyme or reason to the violence because the filmmakers' goal is provocation, not storytelling.
In fact, the music and the images are so adept at making audiences feel—pain, indignation, an urge for violence—they never get around to having a point. The anger has no source or target, either, an ambiguity that works much better in four-minute songs than lengthy narratives. It's never clear whether the film's violence is celebrated or critiqued, just that it's pushed into ever greater extremes by the band's fevered riffs, unrelenting percussion, and aggressive vocals. Early on, the band plays "Ride the Lightning," originally a powerfully visceral attack against capital punishment. In Through the Never, though, feeling is divorced from context. While the band plays, a brutal black-and-white video shows a prisoner forced into an electric chair. The crowd pumps its fists, decrying the injustice. Just a minute later, a prop electric chair above the stage zaps, whizzes, and glows as part of a light show. The crowd pumps its fists, cheering on the execution.
That confused endorsement of violence is troubling enough, but it's exacerbated by an unfortunate and probably unintentional racialization of the anger on screen.
Though most musicians are partly defined through their fandom, the staged shows in Through the Never allow Metallica to portray their own fandom—to imagine and idealize their listeners. Depressingly, then, the onscreen fans are overwhelmingly 25-to-35-year-old white males. Is this because the film was shot in the Great White North—over three days in Vancouver and two in Edmonton—and we're at a metal concert? Possibly. But it would be naïve to assume that there wasn't a selection process that determined who got the front-row seats at those shows, helping Metallica whitewash its fandom. (To clarify, the film appears to take place in a generic Anytown, USA; there are no Canadian markers of any kind.)
The whitewashing matters because the pallor of the anger onscreen wrings emotional resonance and righteous indignation by capitalizing on black pain. During his surreally nightmarish quest, Trip encounters two kinds of violence-doers: a generic mob and a fantastical horseman who nooses his victims with a long chain. Eventually, this dark knight—the credits call him the Death Dealer—pursues Trip. The Death Dealer is technically raceless; he wears a World War II gas mask throughout the film. But his modus operandi—lynching and dragging by horse—recalls the history of racially motivated terror in America, as does the iconography of riding horseback with a sack over his head. The analogy between the Death Dealer and the Klan isn't explicit, but the numerous similarities are glaring enough that it's probably not—and shouldn't be interpreted as—a coincidence.
When the Death Dealer pursues Trip, the audience avatar, the lynching and dragging imagery seems an appropriation of the moral dimensions of racial injustice to arouse feelings of cheap outrage. Anger-mongering isn't a sin in itself; music and film can stoke as well as pacify feelings of violence. But Through the Never exploits historical black suffering to provoke a sense of white aggrievement (represented by the angry white fans in the film's audience). It's about as racially sympathetic as when white anti-abortion activists cite the "Black Genocide" in America without mentioning institutional oppression or cyclical poverty.
The tack of provoking without questioning what exactly it's provoking is irresponsible and insensitive. But it gets worse when Metallica ultimately push the self-destruct button on their own film. In the climactic fight, Trip steals the Death Dealer's Thor-like hammer and slams it into the ground to destroy his foe—more specifically, to cut him up into evil confetti. (Magic works in mysterious ways.) The impact also shakes and explodes the CGI skyscrapers around him, causing the band's show to collapse mid-performance. Light beams fall, props tumble away, crewmembers are set on fire.
Lead singer James Hetfield shrugs off the cataclysm and says in an aw-shucks voice, "We don't need all this fancy stuff anyway, right?" It's a naked bid for authenticity—Metallica resume playing "unplugged" without the pricey spectacle. But in disavowing the theatrical extravagance of their stage show, Hetfield also renounces the pretentious, special effects-laden film he and his bandmates are in. Thus, Metallica don't just fail to give meaning or value to the feelings of anger they incite—they wash their hands of it.
Through the Never, then, is ultimately a fascinating experiment in a kind of shorthand narration, in seeing whether the catharsis of storytelling can be achieved with a truly crappy story. The answer seems to be yes; as so many TV or even print ads demonstrate, images are powerful in and of themselves without the benefit of a compelling narrative. For all that this film lacks in smarts and responsibility, though, it's at least an interesting failure, and certainly more ambitious than the branding exercises Justin Bieber and One Direction have put out recently. Given their promising filmography thus far, it's easy to look forward to the band's next big-screen project. Maybe it will have a little more thought—and a lot fewer sweat-soaked leather vests.Follow @VoiceFilmClub
Subscribe to the Voice Film Club podcast