Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

Pennsylvania: Warts and All


I’m trying to catch up on my movie-watching, as awards season is upon us and those of us who vote need to be informed! Aaaghh! So I’ve recently seen two very interesting Pennsylvania-themed films, Prisoners and Out of the Furnace. Both of these films describe a visual world that (to some people) might seem mundane… but the costumes are brilliant. Check out some images of this very fine work by costume designers Renee April (Prisoners) and Kurt and Bart (Out of the Furnace).

In Prisoners, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a cop, investigating the disappearance of a couple of young girls. Their parents (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello, and Viola Davis and Terence Howard) rush to judgment and kidnap the guy (Paul Dano) whom they presume is responsible. Torture ensues, and in the end, no one wins.


Looking at the costumes, the film (set in a blue collar PA suburb) is mostly told through murky, muddy shades of earth. Jackman plays a working-class, pickup-driving everyman. We all know someone who looks like this, don’t we? His look is purposefully ordinary – letting us know that what happens to him could happen to any one of us. His clothing is layered, and as his situation gets more out of control, the layers of his costume seem to become more undone.


Contrast that with Gyllenhaal as the cop. He plays this part so beautifully, giving the man eye ticks and secrets and a will of steel – I’ve never seen him better. He seems to wear the same shirt throughout the film (a light blue collared shirt, buttoned all the way up), until the end, when he snaps just a little, color and silhouette underlining the emotional shift.


Paul Dano is creepy as hell in this film. I almost feel bad that he seems to consistently get cast in these “creepy guy” roles, but the fact is – he does this kind of work beautifully. And he’s making probably a fortune doing it, so maybe I shouldn’t feel bad for him. In any case, check him and his mom (Melissa Leo) out – 1983 called, and it wants its look back! The throwback element of their costumage helps us to understand how marginalized and sad they are. They seem lost in time, stuck in the rut of their (spoiler alert) sickness. It’s brilliant, brilliant work.


As for Viola and Terence – observe what they wear here on the day their daughter disappears. They look nice, well heeled, genteel.


Now look at them after they start to lose it. What a contrast this is. I think that Renee April and her team have done some amazing work with this film. It’s worth watching for the performances, the story, and of course the costumes!


Similarly, Out of the Furnace is a performance-driven piece. Christian Bale plays Russell Baze, brother to recently returned Afghan vet Rodney (Casey Affleck). The film takes place in a downtrodden rust-belt mill town, long forgotten by progress and economic growth. As Russell, Bale is a different kind of everyman – one who has not known a life of familial happiness but rather despair. Despite his best efforts and intentions, failure is his destiny. When his brother disappears, he seizes his opportunity to NOT fail, for once – to take matters into his own hands. Look at the way the costume speaks to this. The gentle blues, the humble layers – this is a good man in a bad situation. Bale’s hair and makeup are also excellent – untended and ungroomed, sporting a neck tattoo, he feels like a fully realized person in this bleak world.


Affleck as Rodney is awesome. It’s a sad, painful performance to watch. As the poster child for the Stop-Loss policy, he’s seen too much action, too much horror, and is paying the price psychologically and emotionally for it. He gets involved in bare-knuckle fighting for money – and he fights in his BDU pants. It makes me want to throw up, thinking about the symbolism involved here. My heart breaks for guys like Rodney, and the costume sends a real message. Excellent work costuming the BG in these fight scenes as well – it’s dirty, grimy, horrible stuff, and I mean that as a real compliment.


Rodney also has a bit of a gambling problem, and to square his debts, he gets involved with bookie/hood John Petty (Willem Dafoe). Petty is a lizard of a man, a leather-blazered slimeball who can’t seem to dissuade Rodney from getting involved with “the boys from Jersey” who run the real money fights. Look at Petty’s costume – like Leo and Dano in Prisoners, he seems to be of another time, marginalized and “other”. To see him juxtaposed with Rodney in various permutations of his Army uniform is like… political commentary, if you read into it.


The “boys from Jersey” are led by Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), and they are not only into the fighting racket, they also control the drug action in the region. Clannish, reckless and dangerous, they are not people anyone wants to mess with, including law enforcement. When Russell realizes that the cops aren’t really going to help him find Rodney, he takes the law into his own hands. Look at Harlan – the rings alone should scare you off, nevermind the rooster claw necklace. He’s in some form of sleeveless garb for most of the movie, and he’s so dirty and greasy, you can almost smell him through the screen. The age/dye/tech work on his costume is great.


The most poignant scene in the film (and probably the best scene in ANY movie I’ve seen in the last year) comes when Russell is reunited with his old flame Lena (Zoe Saldana). She’s moved on with her life, and Russell is filled with regret at his failure. It’s truly heartbreaking – an elegy on what is, what could have been, and what should have been. Best scene of the year for me. Lena’s costume is cheap and plain, as it should be, befitting her means, with lovely touches in her accessories. She’s sexy, natural, down-to-earth, and looks approachable. We want to like her, we root for her – in part based on our impression of her, which comes from the costume, and of course from her performance. The movie is worth watching for this scene alone.


We are trying to finish up here on Sleepy Hollow, and I will have more reviews and insight for you as I see more films. This is a very interesting year, Frocktalkers – so much to consider, so much good work out there. I hope you get to see these two films – let me know what you think on Twitter @Frocktalk! Have a great week.


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