After watching the riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in Cate Blanchett in drag that is “I’m Not There,” there was something refreshing about “Control,” Anton Corbijn’s look at the life and death of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. There is no cryptic symbolism – hell, there isn’t even any color – opting for a straight-forward story of a man at war with his thoughts, his fame and even his own body.
The movie begins in the early ‘70s with Ian (Sam Riley), a Bowie-worshiping school boy poet, stealing Deborah (Samantha Morton), his best friend’s girlfriend. Their life is simple enough; they finish school, they get married, he gets a job at an employment agency, Deborah gets pregnant. When Ian’s friends Peter (Joe Anderson) and Bernard (James Anthony Pearson) tell him they’re looking for a new singer for their band, Ian tells them he’ll take the job. The band, christened Joy Division by Ian, begins to gain a loyal following, but Ian begins to suffer from violent seizures, and the meds that his doctors prescribe – they admit that they’re not sure which combination of pills will do the trick – are of little use. If the stress of managing a music career with a home life wasn’t enough, Ian falls for Belgian reporter Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara), and Debbie fights like hell to keep her husband.
One small but crucial detail that Corbijn absolutely nails is the band’s live performances. Riley has Curtis’ mannerisms down to a science, from the spastic dance moves to his tendency to swallow the microphone. Likewise, Anderson and Pearson look and play exactly like Hooky and Barney. Usually no one pays attention to anyone but the singer in these biopics, so bonus points to Corbijn for getting everything right. Corbijn also gets three gold stars for his tasteful, though disturbing, framing of Curtis’ final moments and Deborah’s discovery of him.
Pity, then, that the movie isn’t really about Joy Division. The movie uses Deborah Curtis’ book “Touching from a Distance” as source material, which is why Morton gets top billing. Ian is still the star of the movie, of course, but the movie is a 50/50 balance of home life and band life, though it feels more like 70/30. Huge aspects of the band’s evolution are glossed over (“We need a singer.” “Not anymore.” “Oh, all right. We’re called Warsaw.” “No, we’re Joy Division now.” “Oh, all right.”) in order to spend more time analyzing Ian and Deborah’s troubled home life. It’s valuable information, sure, but the movie does such a remarkable job selling Joy Division that when the focus shifts elsewhere, the movie temporarily grinds to a halt.
It’s one thing to be the anti-“I’m Not There,” but “Control” is actually too streamlined for its own good. Good for them for wanting to include as much information in as short a time as possible, but while we learn a lot about Ian Curtis, we don’t exactly get to know him. It has lots of what, but little why. Still, what is better than huh? any day of the week.(3.5 / 5)