Now nearing the age of 70, celebrated American director Brian De Palma is known for his commitment to visual storytelling, inspired by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock. He’s responsible for some of the gooey, blood-soaked movies of the ’70s and ’80s that set the tone for what would become passé in the modern cinematic sequences of bodies stacking up faster than viewers can keep track of them. We learn in this documentary that De Palma hates contemporary action tropes like car chases, though, so even amid flying bullets and fast-motion sequences, he wants you to know where characters are and what they are really doing.
Documentary directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow don’t delve deep into De Palma, or his relationships with people like George Lucas and Oliver Stone. Rather, it’s an austere approach with a grandfatherly looking De Palma facing the camera as he’s seated before an unlit fireplace. He works through a loose narrative about his long career, threading in and out of stories about most of his 40 films in chronological order and trashing on what’s become of Hollywood over that timespan. We’re not sure whether it’s the questions from behind the camera or deft editing that leaves one liking the guy.
A big name with a seemingly small ego, De Palma’s first big hit was the 1970 adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie, which forever changed the girls locker room and the prom. Then he backed it up with solid wins like Scarface in 1983 and The Untouchables in 1987. Then he hitched his wagon to the Tom Cruise machine to churn out the first Mission Impossible in 1997 before he packed it in to return to his own brand of obscurity overseas through the present. What’s most interesting about this straightforward look are the scattered behind-the-scenes images like the mom in Carrie getting pinned in the doorway by flying kitchen implements; stills of him working with actors, like a hand on Al Pacino’s shoulder as he shoots pool in Carlito’s Way; and treasures like the original ending to Snake Eyes.
De Palma stays humble to the end. “The disappointing thing about teaching film,” he says, “is that 99 percent of them are not going anywhere. Anybody that has a career, it’s a miracle.”