Rarely has a filmmaker experienced as rapid a rise and fall as Swedish director Lukas Moodysson. His intimate 1999 romance Fucking Åmål (a.k.a. Show Me Love) and his sprawling 2000 comedy Together were praised for their warmth and insight. Then he swapped optimism for pessimism with 2002’s heartbreaking (but artful) Lilya 4-Ever. After that, Moodysson tested audiences with the intentionally repellant A Hole In My Heart and the aggressively experimental Container, and in just a few short years, he went from being a favorite of critics and audiences to being a director whose name evokes winces and warnings.
Moodysson’s relatively mainstream Mammoth—his English-language debut—is something of an olive branch to his former fans, though it’s hardly in the same class as the movies he made at the start of the ’00s. Gael García Bernal plays an Internet bigwig who flies to Bangkok on business and befriends a young prostitute. Meanwhile, back in New York City, Bernal’s wife (Michelle Williams) worries that her overnight shifts at the ER are distancing her from her 8-year-old daughter, who adores their Filipino nanny, Marife Necesito. And Necesito is anxious about the calls she’s getting from her own kids, begging her to come home. Mammoth is about a group of people pushed by economic necessity to tend to people other than their actual loved ones, and Moodysson has a keen eye for how such a depressing situation looks, whether he’s showing Bernal leaving a seductive Williams behind in their cozy bed or showing Bernal spending good money to live like a pauper on a Thailand beach.
But while Mammoth is frequently poignant and beautifully acted—especially by Williams, who’s so lost and lonely that she becomes casually cruel—the movie lacks the personal touch that’s distinguished even Moodysson’s “difficult” films. Perhaps because Moodysson is working in a foreign tongue—or perhaps because he has a point to hammer home—Mammoth’s dialogue lacks nuance. Together and Fucking Åmål lovingly ribbed the foibles of well-meaning people, but Mammoth is the kind of movie where a $3,000 pen inlaid with mammoth ivory provokes a deadly earnest, not-in-the-least-satirical speech about how we’re all headed for extinction. Mammoth’s anti-globalization, everything’s-connected premise feels rehashed from a dozen other indie films, only Moodysson anchors it with the heart-sinking hopelessness that’s been his stock in trade since Lilya. The clear-eyed, loveable humanist who breezed in from Sweden a decade ago appears to be gone for good.