Three Monkeys (2008)

Genres - Drama, Mystery  |   Sub-Genres - Ensemble Film, Melodrama  |   Release Date - May 1, 2009 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 109 min.  |   Countries - France , Italy , Turkey   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Mark Deming

Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan's latest picture, Three Monkeys, is a story about responsibility -- responsibility and rain. Whenever something goes wrong for one of the characters in the movie, the ominous sound of distant thunder booms on the soundtrack, and since hardly anything goes right for anyone of importance in Three Monkeys, there are an awful lot of thunderstorms in this movie. The thunder and rain are the most coherent and eloquent parts of the picture, a film that seemingly has something to say but lacks the fluidity to make its message clear and compelling.

In Three Monkeys, Yavuz Bingöl plays Eyüp, who works as a chauffeur for Servet (Ercan Kesal), a prominent politician running for reelection. Late one night, Eyüp gets a call from Servet, who is in a state of panic -- while driving down a narrow road late at night (while it was raining, of course), he ran into a man, and was seen by a passing motorist who reported his license plate number to the police. Servet is certain the hit-and-run will put an end to his career in politics if word gets out, so he makes Eyüp an offer: if Eyüp will take responsibility for the accident, Servet will pay his salary to his wife, Hacer (Hatice Aslan), and son, Ismail (Ahmet Rifat Sungar), while he's behind bars, and Eyüp will get a large cash bonus once he's released. Eyüp agrees to the scheme, and urges Ismail to concentrate on his upcoming college entrance exams as he begins his nine-month prison sentence. But Ismail is a slacker who hangs out with a rough crowd; he's not interested in either school or work, and he wants to use Eyüp's windfall to buy a car. When Ismail comes home one night beaten and bloody, Hacer reluctantly agrees to ask Servet for an advance on Eyüp's bonus to buy the car. There's a quid pro quo to Servet's early payment of the money, which Ismail learns when he discovers that the politician has been visiting Hacer on the sly while he's away. When Eyüp returns home nine months later, he's furious that Ismail has spent so much of his money without his OK, and he's suspicious when Servet doesn't deduct the cost of the car from his bonus. Eyüp puts the final pieces together when he intercepts a call from Servet on Hacer's cell phone, and feels a bitter sense of betrayal from the people closest to him until Ismail takes a misguided step toward putting things right.

Three Monkeys is a story about four people who consistently do things for reasons that are misguided at best and selfish at worst, and unfortunately, the fog of their self-delusion seems to have clouded the judgment of director Ceylan. In Three Monkeys, even the most basic plot points are presented in a needlessly oblique manner that makes it difficult to tell who is doing what and why. We're never even certain about the accident that sets the story in motion until Servet talks to Eyüp about it, and while many of the more puzzling elements in the picture are relatively minor, Ceylan's consistent failure to clarify their place in the narrative muddies the waters of what should have been a reasonably straightforward tale. It doesn't help that none of the key characters are at all easy to empathize with; Ismail is either angry or whining throughout, and Sungar's one-note performance makes him all the more grating, while Bingöl's Eyüp is sullen and sometimes violent, and it's easy to imagine his family is better off without him during his nine months in stir. Aslan gives the most engaging performance as the strong if easily tempted Hacer, but the script (by the director in collaboration with Ebru Ceylan and Ercan Kesal) gives her precious little to work with, sometimes making her a villain simply for looking out for herself and her family. And Kesal doesn't get enough time to make Servet seem like more than a caricature, though he brings a certain edgy wit to the frustrated politician's rants. Gökhan Tiryaki's cinematography is beautifully executed, but too many scenes are shot from a long distance that makes it difficult to follow the action -- the effect seems to be to make the audience feel like voyeurs, but not especially bold or accomplished voyeurs. When the sound of thunder is the thing that speaks clearest and best in Three Monkeys, it suggests Nuri Bilge Ceylan should have gone back to the drawing board and come up with a more solid, effective vision before putting this project before the cameras.