So, Neil Marshall rocked the house again in this week’s Game of Thrones. First “Blackwater,” now “The Watchers on the Wall.” He may be at risk of becoming a default choice for the creative team on that show. “So, we have this giant battle epis–” “GET NEIL.”
Still, if he gets stuck in that role it’s only because he’s a damn fine director. Despite not being anything approaching a household name, Neil Marshall has been one of the most reliable action directors in the biz over the past decade or so. Where most action cinema is moving towards weightlessness and incoherence, Marshall is getting better and better at delivering story-driven action that delivers weight and clarity.
So, in honor of “The Watchers on the Wall,” we’re going to sit down and rank his entire filmography. You’ll never guess what makes the top slot! Okay, yes, it’s The Descent. But, uh… you’ll never guess where Game of Thrones winds up!
(Also, I can’t care to check out Black Sails, so those in the know should weigh in below and tell me where that one belongs.)
I didn’t know it at the time, but this movie is sort of a proto-Game of Thrones statement from Marshall. A low-budget bloody medieval thriller, Centurion was part of a string of similar projects (The Eagle, Ironclad, etc.) that stood out due to Marshall’s storytelling economy and flair for gore. One of Marshall’s calling cards is the way he handles blood ‘n’ guts, and the massacre sequence early on in this movie goes so far over the top that I can’t decide if it’s hilariously awesome or just hilarious. It’s the perfect movie to recommend to someone who’s “into this sort of thing.”
Unfortunately, Centurion spends its runtime falling short of greatness. It kind of works as a small, contained little actioner, but lacks the memorable character work or thematic resonance of similar movies like Dredd or Black Death. It’s a bit more of a curiosity now that Marshall has gone on to Thrones glory and Fassbender has rocketed into the stratosphere. Still, ultimately Centurion winds up little more than a quintessential “rainy Saturday” movie.
True story: My college roommate walked in halfway through this movie and genuinely thought it featured a race of people who could only communicate through screaming at each other.
As his direct follow-up to The Descent, Doomsday failed to cement Marshall as one of our great genre directors. In fairness, that’s partially because it’s not as strong a piece. Where The Descent thrived on economy, smart storytelling, and compelling character stuff, Doomsday mainly just thrives on being f***ing insane.
It’s so much fun, though. Doomsday is an homage (or ripoff, depending on how much you like it) of pretty much every post-apocalyptic movie ever made. It’s quite literally Escape from New York meets Mad Max meets 28 Days Later meets… well, we could go on and on. Thankfully, Marshall marshalls enough energy and inventive violence to keep the thing lively as it hurtles from one ridiculous setpiece after another. For a few of us, it’s actually even a memorably fun time at the movies.
The history of horror cinema is riddled with bold, energetic debut features. Each major director’s first foray has its own thing going, but Dog Soldiers might be the most flat-out entertaining of all of them.
Dog Soldiers features Marshall at his most alchemical, generating fun and thrills seemingly out of thin air. There’s no reason a feature that cost so little should have so much life and vigor about it, but he manages to pull it off. To put things in perspective, the entirety of Dog Soldiers costs the same as the average Game of Thrones episode… in Season ONE. Now we know how he got so much bang for his buck on that show, I guess.
There are novelty factors, too. Familiar faces like Sean Pertwee and (the Onion King himself) Liam Cunningham show up. The Scottish terrain provides a nice change of pace from our usual American settings. And of course the werewolves — once they show — are actually pretty badass.
Basically, Dog Soldiers is a manly, gory good time. Which is basically this guy’s MO.
Game of Thrones: “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall”
If you combined these episodes together, you’d have something that was really in the running for Marshall’s best work of all time. Unfortunately, they trade weaknesses and strengths a bit too much for that.
In “Blackwater,” we have a battle episode that encompasses (for its length) a stunning list of character subplots. The episode obviously features Tyrion/Geoffrey and Cersei/Sansa, but other characters like the Hound, Bronn, Tywin, and Davos have significant parts to play. Watchers on the Wall lacks the variety; there’s a number of familiar faces at play but few we actually care about all that much.
On the other hand, “Watchers on the Wall” is bone-crushingly awesome in a way that “Blackwater” only flirts with ever becoming. Other than its iconic wildfire explosion, “Blackwater” struggles to escape the obvious budgetary restrictions inherent to the telvision format. “Watchers on the Wall” never feels compromised; due to a combination of landlocked locations, improved budget, and more prep time, Neil Marshall steps up to the plate in Season Four and just knocks it over the fence.
Combined, these two episodes rival most feature films put out these days. Except for, of course…
Honestly, the greatness of this movie seems a little fluky when set against the rest of Marshall’s career. He’s always been a really, really solid director, but this thing is on a whole ‘nother level. The Descent is truly a Great Movie.
Maybe it’s because it’s about real people? Looking back over this list, The Descent is easily the most relatable, grounded movie of his career. He usually favors period pieces or fantasy centering on soldiers; his films fully embrace the masculinity of combat and command. This movie, though, is just about a group of women who want to go spelunking and get in over their heads. Even though their trials are ultimately pretty sensational, no other Marshall movie stars characters who so resemble people I’ve actually met.
Plus Neil Marshall, the really good action director, is firing on all cylinders. All the stuff needed to execute this storyline — directing the ensemble cast, finding the claustrophobia and geography of the tunnels, effective gore — Marshall brings in spades. Like I said, The Descent achieves greatness.
I’d love for Marshall to hit that lofty target again someday (maybe in a future episode of Game of Thrones?), but for now I’m content to simply look forward to whatever he does next.* Not very many guys who can just sit down and freakin’ deliver as well as he does.
What’s your favorite Neil Marshall project?
*I mean after he’s done with the pilot of the upcoming show Constantine.