REVIEW: Phenomenal film “Green Book” held back by unexplored themes

There’s a certain upper echelon of actors who can be counted on to deliver amazing performances. These performers always bring the best of the best. A few examples in this top tier would be the likes of Daniel Day Lewis, Meryl Streep, Leonardo Dicaprio and Viggo Mortensen.

Mortensen, known for his roles in “The Lord of the Rings” and “Eastern Promises,” is notoriously picky about the films he attaches himself to. This is why it was so exciting to hear he would be starring in the film “Green Book” alongside Mahershala Ali, who also happens to be breaking into that same upper echelon.

“Green Book” is a film inspired by the true story of two men, an Italian-American bouncer and an African-American musician, as they make their way around the deep American South in the 1960s. There are prominent tensions between the two men over their races, but they soon begin to form a strong friendship over their shared experiences.

Based on the trailers for “Green Book,” I thought there was a legitimate chance this film could shoot straight to the list of the year’s best films. And, while “Green Book” is undoubtedly a great film, it’s not quite the standout I would’ve liked it to be.

Before delving into why “Green Book” didn’t meet expectations, it’s important to note how much excellence the film has to offer.

First of all, the performances from Mortensen and Ali are unsurprisingly phenomenal. Both actors took the roles they were given and brought them to life in brilliant fashion while also maintaining a great sense of chemistry that made their relationship believable.

Early on in the film, Mortensen’s character, known as Tony Lip, does some pretty despicable things, but the audience is still tempted to like him. That’s almost solely due to the charisma and attitude that Mortensen brought with him. The persona of his character makes him seem like he would be genuinely fun to sit down and joke around with. However, his prejudices ultimately stops him from being very likable altogether, at least early on in the film. As “Green Book” progresses, Tony grows as a person and starts to acknowledge many of his own flaws. Mortensen adjusts his performance subtly as the film goes on and his character evolves. The audience can tell solely from Mortensen’s expressions that Tony is starting to have a change of heart. Mortensen embraced and capitalized this character growth, which ultimately made his performance an absolute knockout.

Ali also brought the same level of pure dedication and skill to his performance as the musician, Don Shirley. From the moment he walks on screen, the audience can tell there is more to this character than meets the eye. He may be dressed in the most lavish clothes imaginable, but there’s a sense of pain in his eyes. As the film continues, there are several different revelations about Shirley’s life that provide context to that pain. The audience begins to relate and become attached to Shirley in the same way that Tony does.

The last aspect of the film that should be highlighted is how much energy it had at times. There are many different moments in this film that will really get your blood pumping. Sometimes, it will be in anger, sometimes in fear and sometimes even with excitement. Audiences will feel an incredibly wide range of emotions while watching “Green Book,” which is a testament to how powerful the story is.

However, “Green Book” is by no means a perfect film. That’s not due to any glaring flaws with the movie but rather a few major aspects that fail to be as great as others.  

Most notable are the film’s main themes of growth and acceptance. While these themes are undoubtedly justified and admirable, they are somewhat thin. “Green Book” presents many of the racial tensions between its characters more as inconveniences rather than legitimate problems. These tensions and themes were definitely prevalent throughout the film; however, it never really takes a firm stand on anything. It doesn’t leave a massive impact on the audience.

Additionally, at one moment in the film, it’s heavily implied that Ali’s character has a gay experience, which was an incredibly interesting dynamic to introduce. I was curious to see how his character would deal with not only being an African-American traveling through the deep South in the 60s but also being a closeted gay man on top of all of that.  However, “Green Book” never really makes mention of it again. It introduces this concept but then drops it almost immediately, which was quite disappointing.

Despite some of its lesser moments, “Green Book” is still a quality film that a lot of people are really going to like.

The performances are phenomenal, the characters are complex and the film as a whole was very well-crafted. Is it a great film? Definitely. Is it one of the year's best? That's debatable.