This review of The Show was originally published in conjunction with its screening at the Sitges Film Festival in Spain. It has been updated for the film’s wide digital release on Oct 5.
The history of acclaimed comic-book creators making movies is relatively short and undistinguished. Plenty of comics writers have offered input on cinematic adaptations of their work, sometimes even garnering screenwriting credits, but more creator-driven movies like Frank Miller’s bizarre version of The Spirit tend to be relegated to curiosities. “Curiosity” certainly applies to The Show, a new movie from brilliant, celebrated, immensely cranky writer Alan Moore. Moore didn’t direct The Show, but he shares a possessive credit with director Mitch Jenkins, whose past work includes a variety of other Moore projects.
It’s become a rarity to see Moore’s name appearing prominently in a film’s credits. He has no interest in Hollywood filmmaking, and insisted on having his name removed from adaptations like V for Vendetta and Watchmen. (Dave Gibbons, the artist who created the original Watchmen comic with Moore, receives both the credit and the money for the recent HBO TV series.) So what does an Alan Moore movie approved by Alan Moore actually look like?
For fans who followed Moore’s short-film series Show Pieces, it will look familiar. (Three of the five Show Pieces shorts are available as a makeshift feature, streaming on Shudder.) The Show is a continuation of those noir-inflected stories set in a dreamlike version of Northampton, Moore’s English hometown. The bare outline of the film version is simple: A man calling himself Steve Lipman (Tom Burke, the bad-news boyfriend from The Souvenir) arrives in Northampton looking for a man called James Mitchum. His story shifts, as he first claims to be Mitchum’s brother, then his friend; eventually, it turns out that he’s been hired to locate a heirloom necklace thought to be in Mitchum’s possession.
The search leads him to a hospital, where he encounters Faith (Siobhan Hewlett), who came in around the same time as Mitchum. (She’s the subject of the first Show Pieces short.) He also rents Mitchum’s old flat at a boarding house run by the chipper Becky (Ellie Bamber), a local walking-tour guide who can’t help but spout off the occasional fun fact about Northampton.
The idea of a detective figure looking for something as small as a necklace presents an intriguing logistical challenge; in this situation, it turns out that a man’s whereabouts are much easier to trace. This is a storytelling challenge, too: Steve’s mission doesn’t exactly pulse with urgency, for either the character or the audience. There’s more to the story than rummaging around for a lost accessory, but the complications tend to arrive in chunks of explanation, rather than carefully parceled clues. When Steve’s real name turns out to be Fletcher Dennis, for example, it’s not especially clear why he needed to use an alias in the first place, considering how indifferent he seems to his true identity being revealed. He uses an alias because it’s something people do in stories like this.
Moore seems more interested in winking at those conventions and indulging the more metaphysical aspects of the story, as Steve/Fletcher brings Faith into his mission, and the two of them begin to share vivid dreams with overlapping imagery. The Show’s “real” Northampton is already plenty dreamlike, with some inspired ideas from Moore’s weird brain: At one point, Fletcher, who is playing the part of a detective but isn’t really one himself, visits a genuine detective agency, only it’s run by two kids out of a clubhouse, complete with single-scene black-and-white cinematography and hardboiled “narration” spoken aloud by one of the junior PIs. Many of the town’s characters and quirks are delivered with a similarly droll touch, and Moore’s dialogue is often funny.
At the same time, Moore’s inventiveness, along with Jenkins’ use of canted angles and other stylizations, make it harder to sink into the movie’s alternate realities. Many scenes are set in some kind of dream/nightmare/afterlife hybrid, which is where Moore himself turns up in elaborate makeup, playing one of two departed Northampton-based comedians. Moore’s presence more or less sums up the experience of watching this movie: He’s compelling to look at and listen to, with a richly sonorous voice — and he’s still a bit tedious to spend so much time with.
Moore and Jenkins are obviously aiming higher than a self-aware noir pastiche, or at least something off to the side of one. Yet those elements of the movie are a lot more enjoyable than sort-of-dream sequences featuring yet another guy in clown makeup. (Sometimes it’s hard to tell when Moore is making a meaningful allusion or just messing about: Does the clown guy intentionally resemble Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker? Does one of the movie’s songs, mostly co-written by Moore himself, intentionally sound like a parody of Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker?) Another character looms over the proceedings with an all-powerful computer while donning a silly superhero mask, confirming that Moore’s disdain for superheroes is matched only by his inability to stop talking about how thoroughly he disdains them.
While all this is going on, credibly archetypal performances from the actors are absorbed into the cleverness. It’s difficult to begrudge Moore the chance to follow his creative muse on screen, especially when he pays such specific tribute to where he grew up. In this case, it’s also difficult to care much about his whims. The Show is a mind-bender where much of the mind-bending seems superfluous.