After a Venn diagram’s worth of punk documentaries (The Filthy and the Fury, Punk: Attitude, End of the Century, New York Doll), and the Steve Cooganized Manchester farce 24 Hour Party People, Control arrives to draw the shadow of generational interest further, centering on an essential figure of postpunk. Plucking a truncated title from his songs, the very idea of this movie sounds like a morbid joke: a faithful biopic of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, a depressive suicide at 23. (Available soon from Rhino Records: refurbished albums and new Joy Division ringtones.)
Firmly in classics rotation at a party near you, sometimes via the countless bands repackaging dance rock, the sound of Joy Division actually interests director Anton Corbijn less than framing the roiling (dis)quiet of Ian Curtis’s mind. There is something both too spot-on and unknowable about the Curtis story: precocious working-class kid in British postindustrial wasteland reads J.G. Ballard, listens to Iggy Pop and Bowie, and responds to some inner inchoate gloom, but it’s too easy to synthesize music with hindsight. In the superior first half of Control, we see a skinny kid smoking in bed, trying eyeliner, wearing a jacket studded with “HATE” to work but dedicated to his social-services job.
Starting the band, getting known, playing and recording — Corbijn chooses an uninflected tone for much of what follows, arraying his actors in monochrome postwar exteriors and spare interiors. The black-and-white widescreen, though held over from his famous and often facile rock portraiture, comes to feel reasoned, a slowing-down rather than a scarified bleakness. And as the haunted hollowness in the music and lyrics (and Curtis’s strained bellow) manifests itself in silently terrifying depression and fits, Control momentarily levels “authentic-making” romantic myth through the demythologizing reality of a consuming illness.
Curtis’s suffering is more spectrally felt than seen (though it is shown); as Curtis, the lanky Sam Riley also just shows us a kid who got married at 19, magnetic, casually selfish (nothing like the ferrety presence in 24 Hour). But Control settles into a more familiar track through the not-so-bizarre love triangle between Curtis, desperately dedicated wife Debbie (Samantha Morton), and Belgian tour companion Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara, resembling a beauty of the 60’s art-house ). Corbijn does memorably stage Curtis’s terrifically bottomless silence during Debbie’s confrontations, but his movie tanks in the second half with, among other things, on-the-nose storytelling, voiceovers, and cues to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ and ‘Isolation’.
Control may intrigue through a certain blankness and circumscription (almost amusing alongside the season’s other story of a musician, the voracious, protean I’m Not There). But besides the collapse of the film’s confidence, its still-novel world comes to feel too pristine, weirdly aloof from a hardscrabble period. There is always an equal danger of rendering Joy Division an undeniable totem, and of churlishly denying their fruitful reworking of modernist strategies (well described by critic Simon Reynolds). Control may fuel the skeptics, as a careful pose that falters.