Sometimes, when it comes to one of the big awards season players, you don’t see what all the fuss is about, but still recognize that you’re watching something worthwhile. This year, the Centerpiece Selection of the 60th New York Film Festival is one of those titles. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, which won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and played at the Toronto International Film Festival, has been blowing my colleagues away. Unfortunately, while I think the movie is well done and important, it never struck me to that level. So, despite the high profile NYFF slot, it ranks as a bit more ordinary than that.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is an ambitious documentary, mixing in activism and biography. It’s almost an autobiography, since the subject is telling her own story, largely through her own artistic works. It’s unique, to be sure, but a little bit static, preventing me from engaging quite as much as I otherwise might have been by the story.
The documentary follows the life of artist Nan Goldin as well as eventually her battles with the billionaire Sackler family, a pharmaceutical dynasty. The Sacklers are, at least in part, responsible for the nation’s opioid epidemic, and in turn, it’s insane death toll. These two tales are woven together to be a biographical look at a unique artist, sure, but also an urgent call to action.
The story begins by introducing us to Goldin, who became a part of the New York “No Wave” underground artistic collective. From there, she would go on to become one of the great photographers of the late 20th century. However, a battle with addiction nearly took her life, and that in turn made the opioid crisis ring even truer to her. Nearly succumbing to opioids, she puts herself at the forefront of the battle against the Sacklers going forward. Goldin does it as an activist at art institutions around the world as well as by advocating for the destigmatization of drug addiction. Her hope is to pressure the museums and locations that take Sackler money to stop, as well as to end the opioid crisis. Amibtious, to say the least.
Nan Goldin is the focus here, both as the subject and as the one providing the photography. Director Laura Poitras is, perhaps on the surface, an odd choice to direct this doc. She’s clearly passionate about the crisis and about Goldin’s story, but it feels like she’s a bit overqualified to almost be collecting photographs. Still, having someone as good as Poitras on hand to tie it all together likely makes this better than it otherwise might have been.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed aims high, undeniably. While I don’t think it hits the heights it’s hoping for most times, it settles into itself towards the back half and becomes more compelling. So, while this isn’t the masterpiece some have said before, it’s a middle of the road documentary this year and an interesting Centerpiece for NYFF. It’s just, perhaps sadly, not a whole lot more than that, at least for me.
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