How the hell is “Lion” so damn good?
It’s one of the big questions hovering over the holiday movie season, right up there with urgent queries like “How many times have you seen ‘Moonlight?’” And it’s a question worth asking because — at least on paper — “Lion” should have been a kitschy melodrama or an exploitative disaster. Possibly both.
For one thing, it’s based on the kind of dangerously incredible true story that seems too astounding to go untold, but also — in a strange way — too banal to be dramatized. Saroo Brierley was born with a name he couldn’t remember, and in a place he couldn’t name. Raised in a squalid pocket of rural India with his single mother and older brothers, Saroo was accidentally separated from his family at age five, transported 930 miles across the country in the empty carriage of a random train, and eventually adopted by a well-to-do white couple from Australia. It was a terrifying and irrevocable journey, and the first hour of “Lion” recreates it in vivid detail.
From there, the action abruptly relocates to Tasmania, where Saroo is now a well-assimilated twentysomething who is portrayed by Dev Patel, dating Rooney Mara, and decreasingly capable of silencing thoughts about the birth mother and siblings he lost. He begins using a nascent technology called “Google Earth” to poke around the infinite terrain of his home country in hopes that he might stumble upon a landmark capable of agitating something from deep within the fog of his memory.
Sight unseen, “Lion” not only seems like a ridiculously expensive Google commercial, it also seems like it should be a ridiculously expensive Google commercial. It’s easy to imagine how Saroo’s story could make for a moving two-minute advertisement, but considerably more difficult to picture how it might work as a two-hour film … one that also happens to be Harvey Weinstein’s only serious contender in this year’s Oscar race. I don’t want to say that expectations were low prior to the film’s TIFF premiere, but the poster is literally a blown-out headshot of Dev Patel, with a search bar over the bridge of his nose. What’s next, a Tate Taylor drama about a woman who used Wikipedia to win custody of her kids? A three-hour Scorsese epic in which our hero plays“Pokémon Go” to escape a Russian labor camp? Actually, that last one sounds kind of incredible, but you get what I’m trying to say.
And yet, “Lion” works. More than that, it’s extraordinarily moving.
The film’s weakest bits come when Saroo becomes obsessed with Google Earth (to the point where he locks himself in his room like he’s tracking the Zodiac killer, abandoning sleep or any pretense of hygiene), but those scenes are mercifully brief, as this story is less about the search for his home than it is about the search for himself.
Director Garth Davis refuses to tell this story in a traditional fashion. Rather than anchor the narrative in Saroo’s adult life and flesh out his past through a series of poorly contrived flashbacks, Davis brings the same grace and visual eloquence that informed his immaculate episodes of “Top of the Lake.” The film is a flowing and emotionally lucid portrait of a man struggling to reconcile the disparate halves of his identity, building a bridge between islands that remain connected just beneath the surface. Davis baked that dynamic into every part of the movie, and “Lion” clicks because that ethos was so clearly accessible to his key collaborators.
Chief among them: his composers.
Thanks in part to the delicately mournful pieces he’s contributed to films like “Marie Antoinette” and “Like Crazy,”45-year-old Phoenix-born piano prodigy Dustin O’Halloran has emerged as one of the most gifted composers of the 21st century.
A polyphonically talented 50-year-old from Dusseldorf, Volker Bertelmann — better known by his recording name, Hauschka — has become a major figure in modern music, particularly since devoting himself to the prepared piano, a piano that’s had its sound altered by placing objects (called preparations) on or between the strings.
These two composers are among the most famous names in neoclassical music (as you can tell by how vehemently each abhors the term). Either of them would have been more than capable of scoring a major prestige picture on his own. Davis’ masterstroke was hiring them both.
“It was all Garth’s idea,” Bertelmann explained over coffee in midtown Manhattan. “He approached me at a concert in Australia and asked if I’d be interested in scoring the movie. But then he said, ‘I have a second composer in mind who I think might work for the second half.’ When he told me it was Dustin, I laughed — we’re good friends, and we already knew each other very well.” O’Halloran, sliding into the booth next to his old pal, was quick to echo that sentiment: “We had spent a lot of time in each other’s world, and the thought of us making music together was pretty exciting because we’d been friends for so long.”
At the outset, Davis planned to assign each composer a discrete portion of the movie, which seemed practical since that the film was already picture locked by the time he began searching for the right people to score it. However, Davis quickly scrapped that strategy for a more holistic approach. Said Bertelmann, “We started separately, but maybe a week later we were shooting ideas back and forth.”
With Bertelmann in Germany and O’Halloran in Los Angeles, a natural flow soon emerged — when one of them was going to sleep, the other was getting to work. They only had two months to complete the commission, but they made progress around the clock.
Fortunately, they weren’t tasked with creating radically different kinds of music, since Davis was never attracted to the didactic idea of using traditional Indian sounds in the first half and transitioning to a more Western palette in the second. “Separating the ‘Indian part’ would have given the first half such a weird, detached, folky element,” Bertelmann said. “The theme of the movie is more general than that — it’s a longing for home, for identity, for finding the kind of place where you feel safe.”
O’Halloran agreed: “The score is completely subjective. It’s from Saroo’s POV and meant to reflect a singular story about his experience. But it’s ultimately a human story. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, or what class. We focused on the innate human experience.”
And while Davis may not have intended his two composers to collaborate so closely, the director’s understanding of Saroo had a way of trickling down to the rest of his team. “He thought so much about where every point should connect musically,” O’Halloran said. “Beyond just writing the music, we also had to connect a spiritual timeline and a physical timeline across the two halves of the film. It was like looking at a map and drawing lines between all of these different points, and how we were going to musically create this subconscious journey. It was a three-dimensional way of making it.”
That idea is mellifluously illustrated by the film’s main theme, which opens with a lilting piano melody that ribbons around itself as it repeats, the music circling an undefined silence. A gauze of strings is introduced after a few bars, gently cocooning itself around the notes. The melody grows more urgent every time the theme is reprised, and the violins around it grow louder and more insistent in return — it’s not simply a matter of turning up the volume or pitting these two elements against one another, but rather balancing them into a desperate call-and-response.
The motif is heard again and again, providing bedrock for a score that’s sprinkled with a number of understandably awed ambient tracks in the vein of Brian Eno or Stars of the Lid (whose Adam Wiltzie has made a pair of records with O’Halloran under the name A Winged Victory for the Sullen). In its numerous variations, and in several other tracks across the film, piano and strings can be heard spiraling upward like twinned strands of a double helix. Appropriately, the music serves as Saroo’s DNA, layering a fractured character with a consistent sense of self. “Lion” is a story told in two parts, with two casts, across two worlds — the score is all that binds it together, stretching from end to end and swirling the disparate shards of Saroo’s identity into a beautiful whole, an individual soul stretched across an unimaginable divide.
In that light, the fact that Bertelmann and O’Halloran have a hard time isolating their individual contributions from the final mix is a perfect testament to their work. “There are some cues that are very much Hauschka’s world and some that are my world,” O’Halloran said, “But yeah, we kind of got lost in the process.” What they found through it, however, elevates “Lion” far above the saccharine Oscar bait that it once seemed certain to be. It’s what brings the movie home.