Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) – Directed by Timur Bekmambetov – Starring Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Marton Csokas, and Alan Tudyk.
There is one major problem with ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER: it takes its story seriously.
The good news is that it takes its story so utterly and completely seriously that the narrative ends up acting as the straight man to the wonderfully ridiculous action sequences, and it would not surprise me if the enjoyment a person got out of this movie stemmed from their reaction to that very divide; that is, does the absurd action scenes allow you to embrace the grim narrative, or does the seriousness of the story make the action scenes feel out of place?
For me, I’m firmly in the camp of the former. ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER is a ridiculous movie that somehow manages to work despite the contradictory nature of the narrative and the action that threatens to rip this movie apart. Abe Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) is a grim enough figure that if he entered into a bromance with Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne the two of them could live together in a small apartment for 100 years and never communicate with anything more than grunts and frowns.
As a child, Abe steps in to stop a black kid – his friend Will Johnson – from getting whipped, which causes his father to step in to stop Abe from getting whipped, which leads to his dad’s creepy boss Jack Barts (Martin Csokas) firing him on the spot. Barts demands his financial debt be repaid immediately, and when Mr. Lincoln can’t do it, Barts shows up one night at the Lincoln cabin and bites Mrs. Lincoln, infecting her with his vampireness and causing her to suffer until she dies. Abe grows up with hate in his heart and after his father dies, decides he’s going to go kill Barts. He meets a stranger at a bar while he’s filling himself up with liquid courage, and then he goes to kill Barts.
Except he can’t, because Barts is a vampire. Lucky for Abe, that stranger at the bar is Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), a vampire hunter who shows up at the docks to save Abe and then brings him home to recover.
Dominic Cooper is a great actor, but the day-after meeting between Henry and Abe is the first sign of trouble in the film. Initially, it starts out fine. Abe wakes up in bed and makes his way to a different part of the house, where he hears the sound of struggle coming from within a closed room. He grabs a large candlestick as a weapon and breaks in – only to find Henry and a woman having sex in the tub. “I didn’t see anything,” Abe mumbles.
It’s a purposely funny moment.
It’s maybe the only purposely funny moment in the whole narrative.
Henry is a vampire hunter. Abe wants to kill a vampire. Henry only agrees to teach Abe if Abe promises that he wants to do it for the good of everyone, not just to get revenge for his mother’s death. Abe says, “Okay,” because he just wants revenge, and Henry agrees to take him on because he either doesn’t realize or care that Abe is in this for personal reasons. There’s a brief training sequence where Abe learns to swing his ax in all manner of ways and some nice historical work where Henry relates that silver is a weakness for vampires because Judas was paid in silver coins for betraying Jesus.
After that, Abe is sent off to Springfield, Illinois, where he gets a job and place to stay from Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) and waits for orders from Henry on who to kill in town. While he waits, the grown-up Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie) shows up seeking his help, and he meets Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a beautiful young woman being romanced by future Lincoln political opponent Stephen A. Douglas (Alan Tudyk). (It was a good sign that I was with a good crowd when the arrival of Tudyk on screen caused an audible vibe of excitement to run through the crowd – I mean, I’m guessing it was more for Tudyk than Stephen Douglas.) Mackie, Winstead, Simpson, and Tudyk all do fine work in supporting roles, though it’s a bit curious none of them seem to have a sense of humor, either.
But then, I have to ask myself, “Should they have a sense of humor?” LINCOLN takes some of our nation’s deepest scars (slavery and the Civil War) and recasts them as part of a vast, shadowy vampire conspiracy, led by Adam (Rufus Sewell). As much as it strikes me that there’s a noticeable disconnect between the grim narrative and the absurd action, would I really have preferred LINCOLN if Abe was cracking one-liners? Would it really have been preferable if Harriet Tubman (Jaqueline Fleming) shook her head and sighed, “White people,” when confronted with the problems of the Lincolns and their problematic vampires? In a very real sense, LINCOLN asks a nation to determine if it’s ready for the kind of alt-history building that’s a much more common occurrence in Britain. How many times has the Doctor dropped back to World War I and II. It’s not uncommon to see Winston Churchill confronted by Daleks, which illustrates that Britain, as a nation, has decided that one of the ways it deals with the horrors of two world wars is to have pop entertainment embrace it.
Americans are less inclined to do this, and instead American entertainment has largely recast the Civil War period in one of two ways – it either focuses on the horror of slavery or it celebrates the whole “brother vs. brother” myth. In both cases, American entertainment rightly treats this time period with the utmost gravity. There were not a lot of chuckles in Ken Burns’ The Civil War, after all, and that doc largely serves as the preferred method of thinking about the war: tragic, unfortunate, and narrated by famous people over somber music.
Is America ready to embrace a different kind of Civil War story? It was only 14 years ago that UPN’s The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, which was a sitcom about a black, English nobleman-turned-slave-turned-President-Lincoln’s-valet, fostered all manner of protests even before a single episode was aired. The idea of a sitcom with a freed slave at the center was just too much for groups like the NAACP to take. I haven’t heard of any such protests against LINCOLN. Is this because it’s not a comedy? Because it takes slavery and the war completely seriously, even with the absurdity of a vampire mythology built into it? Because the nation has reached a point where it can engage the Civil War and slavery in pop entertainment?
Honestly, I have no idea what the answer to these questions are, but I find them incredibly interesting. One of the reasons why Quentin Tarantino is making Django Unchained is because:
I want to explore something that really hasn’t been done. I want to do movies that deal with America’s horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like spaghetti westerns, not like big issue movies. I want to do them like they’re genre films, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it’s ashamed of it, and other countries don’t really deal with because they don’t feel they have the right to. But I can deal with it all right, and I’m the guy to do it. So maybe that’s the next mountain waiting for me.
Here we have one of the major film directors working today stating that he wants to purposely make a film grounded in big issues that he treats like a genre piece. To Tarantino, Django Unchained is a form of national, cultural catharsis. LINCOLN is walking this same road, though with less force and a different rationale. In LINCOLN, no one in production is suggesting that slavery and the Civil War are issues that need to be dealt with in a more open manner; instead, LINCOLN very much tows the accepted cultural take that this is all deadly serious business.
I can’t say I disagree with people who hold that position, but I can say that as seriously as LINCOLN treats these issues, it’s also a film where Abraham Lincoln hunts vampires while armed with an ax.
The conflict is evident in Lincoln’s opening remarks. He tells us, “History prefers legends to men. It prefers nobility to brutality, soaring speeches to wild deeds. History remembers the battle, but forgets the blood. However history remembers me before I was a President, it shall only remember a fraction of the truth.” The idea is direct act on historians who paint the story of a nation in capital-H History, attempting to weave a proud and glorious narrative. Lincoln has been the beneficiary of this approach, of course, as the Emancipation Proclamation did not free slaves across the nation, but only in the Confederate states. In border states that were loyal to the Union (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware), slavery was not abolished because it would have been a politically risky move to anger loyal states that could have potentially join the rebellion. Lincoln’s speech here, then, asks us to look past the legends to know the individuals, yet while Movie Lincoln benefits from this approach, Real Lincoln would suffer because of it.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER is the kind of movie that I love watching because there’s little else quite like it. It’s a decent film in its own right, wonderfully self-destructive in terms of narrative but simply gorgeous in terms of action. (There are few people who shoot action scenes as well as director Timur Bekmambetov.) It’s a riot, but probably not because it was intended to be a riot.
Or maybe it is. Maybe the key to the film is Bekmambetov’s over-the-top, absurdist action sequences, which tells us to take all of that serious narrative stuff with a very large grain of salt. I really don’t know.
What I do know is that there are moments here where everything comes together and LINCOLN finds glory in combining the serious story with the absurd action, like when Mary Todd Lincoln kills the woman who killed her son by shooting her with a large rifle in which she uses her son’s toy sword as her bullet. Here we have a gun-toting First Lady, whose very presence at Gettysburg is due to her shepherding silver weapons to the battlefield with the help of the Harriet Tubman-led Underground Railroad, killing a vampire by shooting a toy sword at her brain. When the vamp falls dead to the ground, the toy sword is sticking out of her forehead. It is one of the few scenes in the film that effectively meshes the narrative and the action into something emotionally powerful and visually arresting.
On the whole, however, LINCOLN is a glorious attempt at a completely ridiculous premise. The actors here are good. The directing here is good. The look of the film and the elaborate action sequences are worth the price of admission alone. There are huge problems with pacing – the film seems to rush through Abe the Hunter years just so we can sit around for Abe the President years, and the story jumps from this moment to that moment like a kid haphazardly flipping through her parent’s photo album – and I can’t help feeling the film should have offered a knowing wink in the narrative to match the action (which looked like it was going to come from Henry, but then didn’t after the bathtub scene), but dang if this film didn’t keep me engaged from start to finish.
Much like PROMETHEUS, LINCOLN leaves me feeling both conflicted and thrilled that a movie is trying something new, and much like SUCKER PUNCH, LINCOLN demonstrates that its incredibly talented director is further ahead creating visual spectacles than he is at telling engaging stories.
And yet, it is because of all this disconnectedness, because of the conflicted feelings it leaves me with, I think if you’re a fan of movies, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER is a movie you have to see … even if you end up hating it.