Snowpiercer is a sci-fi phantasmagorical train-trip through a wintry countryside that used to be the world. It has a fever-pitch pace, but also the languorous poetic soul of Dr. Zhivago. It's one of those movies you feel the lure to go back to, not because it's insightful and brilliant, which it is, but mainly because of its visionary kookiness, its atmosphere and bravura. It is evidence that smart people still make great genre movies. Bong Joon-ho is the director, and boy does he direct. Every aspect of the piece is pure auteur, from the credits to the hermetically sealed sense of design and locomotion to the way the actors interrelate.
But what truly makes Snowpiercer so piercingly odd and beautiful, the centerpiece on the table, is Tilda Swinton's grotesque and brilliantly comic turn as Mason, the Rich-Bitch/Adolf-Hitler who is in charge of enforcing the rules and regulations of the train's despotic owner. She's the Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove of the piece, and yet also somehow its human soul. Mason's lady-dictator look is so detailed as to become drag-queen iconic: hair and eyeglasses from a 1982 Chamber of Commerce luncheon celebrating women in business, a fur-coat the Gabor sisters might fight over, a grim gray uniform underneath festooned with pearls, and a mouthful of false teeth that slowly slip back and forth as she microphones her orders throughout the train. Swinton is a goddess that gets the joke, and all her performances in movies are both hammy and completely natural, so here too is comic exaggeration merged with artistic control. And it's funny as hell. Every time she graced the screen, I was laughing my ass off. There's something totally guttural and surreal and next-door-neighbor about the whole thing, as Mason marches toward her own demise, slowly understanding her fate as hostage to the back-of-the-train trash taking their destinies back.
Eventually you even feel sorry for this clown in a fur coat, tossed out of her comfort zone, which also happens to be a death zone for 99% of the Snowpiercer's working-class passengers. All Mason's virtues and vanities get peeled away until she's pure nothing by the end of the movie, and in that moment of abdicated epiphany Swinton seems totally alive and perfectly comfortable in Mason's debasement, her recognition of loss. It's comedic acting that goes beyond the comedic and even the tragic, into a realm of absurdity so skillfully accomplished you see yourself in Mason's scrawny-monkey countenance, and while it's not funny really you laugh anyway as Swinton lets you in on a little secret: we're all lady-dictators deep down inside, are we not?.