Forget Widescreen: THE REPORT, WAVES, and this fall’s aspect ratio status symbols

The Report, a new film written and directed by Scott Z. Burns and produced by Steven Soderbergh, has been shot in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio. A few years ago, this would have seen more or less standard. Of course, some movies are composed in anamorphic widescreen while others opt for the less expansive 1.85:1, but just as 1.85 became the common wider-than-TV frame in the 1950s, 2.35 or 2.39 have become quite common in the era of flatscreen TVs (which are closer to the 1.85 ratio), a default “cinematic” look now that so much TV has widened out. This fall, I’ve noticed that many of the season’s most interesting and ambitious movies aren’t bothering with super-wide compositions at all. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is in 1.85 (like some of his older movies); the Shining sequel Doctor Sleep is, too (like the original’s theatrical release), and so are Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn, and Ang Lee’s Gemini Man. Some recent releases go further: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is in 1.66, the New York Film Festival debut First Cow uses 1.33, and The Lightouse is in the super-old-timey 1.19. Meanwhile, the movies that stay wider for their entire running times are the chintzier likes of Zombieland 2, Last Christmas, and, yes, Jexi. There are plenty of reasons a director might not want to automatically use 2.35, but it’s still a fascinating switch, even if it’s a coincidental one. Is this a reaction to the easy availability of Widescreen Content? Does anamorphic widescreen now somehow signify a movie going through the motions of visual interest while remaining mostly indifferent?

“Indifferent” would be the wrong way to describe The Report. It is an exacting and rigorous procedural, with Adam Driver playing a staffer assisting the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation of the CIA’s torture practices following the September 11th attacks. But apart from depicting the windowless research rooms and halls of power as especially vast and sometimes foreboding, Burns doesn’t do much with his wider frame. Despite the natural, serious-minded charisma that Driver brings to a nerdy, obsessive crusader, The Report doesn’t have a whole lot of personality. It distills a lot of data and metadata into a couple of hours, but when it tries to enliven the sterility of its Washington environs with flashbacks to scenes of actual torture, Burns accidentally exposes just how limited and secondhand most of its drama feels. The Report is at its most interesting when it feels the least traditionally cinematic—when it digs into the bureaucratic and logistical challenges Driver’s character faces. When it tries to work up some righteousness, the emotion doesn’t come. Like the widescreen cinematography, you can see why it’s there, yet it’s hard to get worked about how it’s presented.

If The Report is the latest fall movie to treat a widesecreen aspect ratio as due process, Waves is the latest to free itself from conventional aspect ratio choice entirely. Noah Hawley, the poor man’s Fargo auteur, tried this with Lucy in the Sky, sometimes using boxy 1.33 to up the anxiety of the grounded astronaut played by Natalie Portman, and sometimes expanding out super-wide, even cropping picture and using split-screen to go wider than 2.39. The size and shape of the image changes at least a dozen times if not more, something Waves also attempts, albeit more organically, almost palindromically. Writer-director Trey Edward Shults splits his story in two: the first half of the movie is about Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a teenage wrestler, and his relationship with both his high school girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) and his domineering father (Sterling K. Brown), while the second follows Tyler’s sister Emily (Taylor Russell) and her boyfriend Luke (Lucas Hedges).

Shults isn’t content to say, choose one aspect ratio for the first half, and another for the second. The image expands and contracts, hitting most of the major AR shapes at some point, sometimes morphing within the same scene; there are two sequences where a 360-degree pan of a car features a gradual aspect-ratio change to go along with it. Shults is working more intuitively, fluidly, and seemingly less self-consciously, than Hawley; Waves was first announced as a musical, and while it turns out only to have a blasting soundtrack and some moments where the characters sing along (and is less of a musical even in this way than, say, American Honey) (aspect ratio: 1.33:1), you can see Shults trying to access the euphoric and operatic feelings of that genre, applying them to the intense pressure felt by Tyler and the immense grief felt by Emily. It’s a non-psychedelic headtrip.

Waves is often gorgeous to look at, and it’s beautifully acted by just about everyone involved. It’s hard to accuse Shults of smothering style when the expansiveness is so key to the movie’s considerable effects. That said, there is something strenuous about the experience, maybe because it produces memorable moments and shots more than fully developed drama. At times, the roving, rotating, floating camera feels like the visual equivalent of a YA prose writer, desperately striving to replicate a youthful stream of consciousness and exhausting his resources far too quickly. If every moment is a woozy-yet-amped-up, heart-on-sleeve blast of youthful angst or joy, doesn’t it all start to seem a little, well, simplified? Waves is well worth seeing, but sometimes it feels like watching an aspect ratio debate play out in real time: Is widescreen more epic? Is boxy more authentic? Should this look like a widescreen TV, or a CRT set from the ’80s? I rarely felt like Shults was making the “wrong” choice in the moment, and the shifts, granted, kept me on my toes throughout. But in a season where auteur-driven epics are going boxier and indifferent junk is going anamorphic, it’s both fitting and discombobulating to watch a movie where the answer is, effectively: all of the above.