Sometimes movies are like Mexican food, they taste good going down, and you might feel bad immediately afterwords, but once you’ve digested it, you’ll want to go back for more. While I hate to compare Chinatown to a greasy, cheese-coated nacho platter, I think it works. I actually watched Chinatown several days ago, but once I got to the end I knew I had to wait to write this review. After letting it marinade in my mind for a while, I’ve come to the conclusion that Chinatown is my favourite movie on my list so far.
Chinatown is Roman Polanski’s noir crime drama following private investigator J.J. Gittes, played by one of my all-time favourites, Jack Nicholson. Gittes is hired to follow a suspected cheating husband, but the pursuit entangles him in a complex murder scheme reaching the highest echelons of the Los Angeles elite. But I’ll avoid giving away more of the plot; this is the type of film best enjoyed without much information going in. Polanski wanted to let the audience discover the clues to this grim mystery along with Gittes, which is what gives the narrative so much strength. You feel smart watching Chinatown, which for me is a difficult task.
Nicholson is nothing short of masterful. In a great test of his range he plays a more subtle role. While he certainly has his eccentric outbursts, the majority of the performance is more nuanced and calm then what I’m used to from the same man from films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Shining, and Batman. Watching, you can both root for Gittes as he works his way through the mystery, and hate him as he acts like a general jerk. But that’s what makes the role so amazing; either way, you’re thoroughly invested in the experience.
Chinatown’s script is legendary. It’s been taught extensively in screenwriting classes ever since its release, and it’s easy to see why. Robert Towne creates an extremely tight story, with every piece of dialogue and action worthwhile and well thought out. Every scene is so fully fleshed out the film feels so natural and free, but still purposeful and direct. It’s a great feat to create this complex mystery with such authority and without any holes to speak of.
On top of this is Polanski’s directing. Within the first few seconds, the atmosphere is inescapable. Polanski captures the throwback to the noir genre perfectly. When the final credits finally role, you won’t be able to shake the feeling this movie creates. I honestly walked around my house expecting a clue to turn up, or a mysterious bullet to whiz just past my head.
This is all not to mention how amazing this film looks. The production design is superb. I’m totally a sucker for anything set in 1930s-40s Los Angeles, but each location is chosen beautifully, the costumes are fantastic and the old time cars look incredible. All these astounding elements are then shot perfectly by John A. Alonzo, making each scene a visual treat.
There really isn’t anything negative I can say about Chinatown. It’s an amazing film that I couldn’t recommend enough. The tone and atmosphere will haunt you, Nicholson will amaze you and the mystery will stump you. But most importantly Chinatown will have you fully invested. It makes you forget about what’s going on in your own life, instead you only care about what J.J. Gittes will learn next. This is ultimately what all movies should aim to achieve; to take you away from your own life for a couple hours. But Chinatown is more than just an escape, it’s amazing cinema, the best movie on my list so far and one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.