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DOCS THAT SHOCK: ‘Cracked Up’ and ‘The Painter and the Thief’ hit hard where it counts

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Karl-Bertil Nordland and Barbora Kysilkova in ‘The Painter and the Thief.’ Courtesy of Neon

 

Cracked Up: The Darrell Hammond Story
Available on Netflix

Have you ever randomly picked a movie to watch only to have your expectations completely decimated? It’s a rare experience for someone in my line of work. As a film critic and columnist, I spend so much time immersed in the deep end of pop culture that there are very few genuine surprises. The documentary “Cracked Up: The Darrell Hammond Story” is one of those rare occasions where I went in expecting something light and frothy and ended up getting my ass handed to me by a gauntlet of darkness and drama that hit like an emotional freight train.

Initially I started watching “Cracked Up” as a time killer. I’m a fan of “Saturday Night Live” as well as the kind of behind-the-scenes stories you learn from various performers who have spent time on America’s most enduring comedic institution. Hammond was a longtime presence and probably the most able impressionist in the show’s history. He is most renowned for his spot-on Bill Clinton impersonation, in which he seemed to recreate the former president (and just about everyone he impersonated) at a molecular level. I thought I was in for a light story about a struggling comic finding his way to greater success. The reality of Darrell Hammond’s story contains a great deal of struggle and suffering, but “light” it is not.

Comedy and impersonation were Hammond’s ways of coping with a number of early childhood traumas. These traumas led to a lifetime of repression and mental illness that manifested as equal parts comedy and tragedy. I had no real knowledge of Hammond’s existence outside his performances and characters on “SNL”; watching him relay the emotional turmoil he suffered for most of his life felt daunting. The film is a fascinating portrait of a tortured artist and an equally interesting exposé on the process of trying to survive trauma. Director Michelle Esrick does an excellent job chronicling Hammond’s story, and adds artistic flourishes that help elevate the film, including some wonderful attempts to frame Hammond’s afflictions with art.

I was floored and surprised by “Cracked Up.” It’s a movie that begs for your investment. Hammond fearlessly tells his story, showing both his emotional and literal scars. The film is a powerful example of survival and the importance of fighting to find a sense of wellness, even when those moments might be fleeting.

The Painter and the Thief
Available on Hulu

Like “Cracked Up,” “The Painter and the Thief” is ultimately a story about humanity and the struggle to find meaning in madness. Barbora is a struggling artist living in Norway with a troubled past she is trying to leave behind. After two of her paintings are stolen from an art gallery, she starts a life-altering journey to find out what happened and to recover her work.

The life-altering comes in the form of Bertil, a drug-addicted misanthrope who stole one of the paintings. Barbora approaches Bertil in court and asks if they can speak later, in an attempt to collect details about where her painting may have ended up. Then, she asks Bertil if she can paint him. Thus begins an incredibly interesting and dynamic relationship between the pair. Director Benjamin Ree chronicles the fascinating friendship between the titular painter and thief and paints a beautiful portrait of both.

I was flabbergasted by Barbora’s empathy for the man who wronged her. The lack of anger and her ability to connect with Bertil is a testament to the kindness people are capable of. We follow their burgeoning friendship as Barbora’s fascination with Bertil turns artistic. Her portraits of Bertil are a window into her intrigue and serve as a mirror-like reflection into the troubled soul, searching for peace. There are several powerful scenes in the film, including the reveal of Barbora’s first portrait to Bertil, a moment that reduces him to a state of emotional catharsis.

“The Painter and the Thief” feels unique in the ever-expanding landscape of documentary filmmaking. The movie doesn’t rely on “talking head” moments to gain additional insight, but follows the characters with a fly-on-the-wall perspective as Barbora and Bertil’s lives intersect at various points in time. This is an excellent examination of two very different people who manage to find a more profound connection.

DETAILS:
Cracked Up

Now on Netflix, 1 hr 35 min.
Directed by Michelle Esrick
Starring Darrell Hammond
The Painter and the Thief

Now on Hulu, 1 hr 42 min.
Directed by Benjamin Ree
Starring Karl Bertil-Nordland, Barbora Kysilkova

 

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