MGMT's "Cool Song No. 2" (the best song on Kanye West's Yeezus that isn't actually on Yeezus), off their new self-titled album and second "We don't wanna be famous anymore" record in a row, has been afforded an absolutely stunning music video. Directed by Isaiah Seret, who combines the blunt, sweaty melodrama of a director like Lee Daniels' work (Raphael Saadiq's "Good Man," a greasy period piece) with some film student high-concept canniness (the humanist, Jonestown-riffing video for Cults' "Go Outside"), "Cool Song No. 2" is a portrait of emotional turmoil and a trippy, oblique representation of what it's like to try to care for someone you love who is sick.
It stars Michael K. Williams best known for portraying Omar, the shotgun-wielding, gay stick-up man from The Wire (Seret's Saadiq video featured Chad Coleman, Cutty of The Wire), as a Lee Marvin in Point Blank meets Wesley Snipes in New Jack City stonefaced drug dealer. We watch Williams kick ass and lord over some kind of chic meth lab-esque operation that turns plants into drugs. He has an afflicted boyfriend (played by Henry Hopper, Dennis Hopper's son) who is apparently sick, and on the verge of death: Cactus-like bark grows all over his body, and he slowly turns into a plant (on Seret's excellent, informative website, he refers to Williams' character as the "The Plant Man" and Hopper as "Tree" so I will do the same from here on out).
The video lurches from bursts of violence to regret-tinged post-violence moments of pause, and punctuates the moody tough guy vibes with affectionate shots of the Plant Man delicately tending to his transforming lover. "Cool Song No. 2" climaxes with the Plant Man giving Tree the plant drug, encouraging the final steps of a horrifying transition. Then, it's revealed that the Plant Man has a similar bark-like mark on his wrist. He sacrificed himself and now, he will suffer the same fate, but no one will be there to lovingly tend to him. A final image finds Plant Man and Tree in the lab, a heart hovering above them. Seret affectionately affords them this tableau as "Cool Song No. 2" fades out.
Thanks to its psychedelic crime movie visual palette and bold blasts of violence, "Cool Song No. 2" feels very much like Nicholas Winding-Refn's Drive and Only God Forgives. Also, like those movies, "Cool Song No. 2" uses violence as an expression for deeper, more knotty emotions. And that violence is always tempered with regret. Early on, Plant Man throws a man into a wall and then, Seret quickly cuts to him driving, staring forward, in a daze, soaking in his actions. When the Plant Man attacks a guy in a greenhouse, a jump cut moves the scene forward, and Plant Man stands, a little shook by his own propensity for violence.
"Cool Song No. 2" begins as an improbably badass video: Omar from The Wire beating people up. But busting heads soon becomes a representation of Plant Man's inner turmoil. The violence is there because this is how the Plant Man controls his empire, but it also functions as an expression of the frustration that builds up when you cannot help those you want to help the most. This gorgeous, disturbing, incredibly affecting short film is the music video of the year.
Brandon Soderberg is a writer, film lover, and dog owner in Baltimore. He's on Twitter - @notrivia