Our fifth dispatch from the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival (here’s our first, our second, our third, our fourth) tackles some of the fall’s bigger ticket items: Rian Johnson’s buzzed-about whodunit, Knives Out; Noah Baumbach’s latest portrait of domestic and individual discord, Marriage Story; and Waves, the newest genre jump from Trey Edward Shults. Also featured here is Lou Ye’s Saturday Fiction, the latest in the espionage-love affair subgrene; and a quartet of bold entries by young directors – Anne at 13,000 ft, The Sleepwalkers, The Giant, and Jallikattu.
With Knives Out, American director Rian Johnson has traded in Dashiell Hammet — the inspiration for his 2005 debut feature Brick — for the locked-room murder mysteries of Agatha Christie. In but one of the movie’s stridently self-aware touches, the setting is the estate of world-renowned crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who is found with his throat slashed early one morning. (“Look around. The guy practically lives on a Clue board,” says one police investigator.) Suicide seems to be the obvious answer — and for his rapacious family members (played by an ensemble cast including Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, and Michael Shannon), there’s no reason to investigate. It wouldn’t really do to reveal any more of the plot — in part because the limited fun of the movie is its narrative engine, but also because its mystery is so easily unravelled. In itself, this is no critical flaw — and indeed, one could argue that because Johnson’s script works to deconstruct his chosen genre, there’s no actual need to create a compelling, satisfying mystery. But apart from its production design (courtesy of David Crank) and game actors (generally underused), the film’s appeal is fairly limited — and will depend mainly on how one responds to Johnson’s brand of humor. Certainly, there’s some amusement to be found in a running joke about what country Marta (Ana de Armas), Thrombey’s nurse, immigrated from. But generally, the film isn’t quite so superficially entertaining — though in keeping with the movie’s m.o., the story’s contemporary political resonance has been elevated from subtext into unmissable all-caps text. Given the current state of affairs — particularly in the U.S. — the goal, it would seem, is to offer both entertainment and social commentary. Already a shaky proposition as the former, Knives Out also has an unfortunate tendency to pander while presenting the latter. The film offers catharsis, but withholds the potential bloodletting — and in this context, that’s no real catharsis at all. Lawrence Garcia
As the credits roll on Waves, against the blue, bright promise of an open sky, Alabama Shakes’s “Sound and Color” spills forth from the soundtrack. It’s a fitting choice, director Trey Edward Shults winking at himself, as the track could have pulled double-duty and been this film’s title. The director’s previous two features, Krisha and It Comes at Night, were both exercises in tension building, with the etchings of thriller informing a drama and a horror framework, respectively. That impulse remains in Waves, especially in its first half, but this time tension acts as support rather than conceit. Shults here opts for more externalized ways to set the tone — the aforementioned sound and color. Waves is awash in gauzy pastels: neon orange nails alight against a bruise-blue dusk sky, interiors are frequently saturated in the muted glow of uplighting and strobes, and nighttime compositions are dotted with brightly-hued halos. The probing, pursuing camera of Shults’s previous films is exchanged for more affected flips and pirouettes. Sonically, proceedings are teed up by musical cues, the soundtrack a Pitchfork-approved playlist consisting of Animal Collective, Kanye West, Sigur Ros, and Kendrick Lamar — all utilized to heighten narrative or emotional beats. So, for a while, after a while, Waves begins to feel like a self-serious exercise in melodramatic indulgence, building toward a first half apogee that’s a little too after-school-special.
But this is a film of two halves, and the second act plays like an extended denouement, a study in post-tragedy, telling the story that is too often, in film and in life, glossed over in the aftermath of the sensational. To that end, the musical choices mellow in tenor, the visuals become brighter and less menacing. The film’s first hour stacks the deck – its second hour abandons the cards entirely. This ultimately feels like less of a gambit than an organic inevitability, the dichotomous parts so informing each other as to necessitate a reclassification of this as diptych cinema. What must be wrestled with, then, is the messaging in the film’s first half. The restrained beauty of Waves’ culminating section, foregoing any bombast and smartly allowing the film’s only climax to exist at the halfway point, is instructive to its emotional core, but it almost emphasizing that issues of mental illness, internalized patriarchy, and the complicated legacy of black male excellence are largely utilized as plot fodder and furtherance rather than contributing anything meaningful to the discourse. And yet, conceptually, this is a snapshot version of saga cinema, capturing, with heavy style, a brief period in the collective joy and trauma of a family, a development the film’s second half rapturously conveys even if the knottiness of the whole has come just a bit undone by that point. Luke Gorham
Paula Hernandez‘s The Sleepwalkers begins with the sounds of a ticking clock and running water over a black screen. The noises increase in intensity until they sound like a roaring ocean, waves lapping up against the shore. Luisa (Erica Rivas) awakes and finds her daughter, Ana (Ornella d’Elia), wandering the house, naked. There’s blood on her thigh, and Luisa quickly realizes that Ana has begun menstruating. Using a young woman’s coming of age (i.e. her first period) to signify great change is a hoary cliche; thankfully, Hernandez doesn’t lean too hard on the symbolism, instead allowing this brief prologue to act as a kind of loose contextualization for the family drama to come. With husband Emilio (Luis Ziembrowski), Luisa is reluctantly travelling to the family’s vacation home, where she will spend a long weekend with a bevy of brothers, sisters, cousins, grandmothers, and small children. It’s a flurry of activity, and Hernandez charts everything with a simple virtuosity, keying in on gestures and facial expressions to reveal how people are really feeling while nodding politely at each other.
The spectres of Lucrecia Martel’s films The Holy Girl and La Cienega hang over The Sleepwalkers, although Hernandez is a bit kinder to her characters than Martel’s acerbic, caustic view of the oafish petit bourgeoisie. Water plays an important role in all three of these films, as a kind of free floating metaphor, a symbol of purity and fertility but also a mysterious, unknowable void. There is a very specific vibe at play here, a kind of hot box environment, as the home becomes a pressure cooker of unresolved familial antagonism and buried resentments. This is all mostly benign, at least at first, as adults argue over money and jobs and the children wander aimlessly, amusing themselves by the pool. Meanwhile, Ana starts getting very close to her older cousin, Alejo (Rafael Federman), who’s both a bundle of raging hormones and cautious, tentative flirtation. By the time Hernandez introduces a horrific act of violence towards the end of the film, there’s a certain sense that she had to include something, anything, to hang a semblance of narrative on. It’s almost a shame, as just luxuriating in the sweaty, humid atmosphere of general unease is perfectly interesting in and of itself. Still, the eventual collision of all this animosity and sexual tension leads to one of the great final scenes of recent memory, as Luisa and Ana get in their car and flee, determined to get away from this dysfunctional nuclear family. They are both desperate and damaged and scared but also, if only for a moment, finally free. Daniel Gorman
Set amidst the spy games of Allied and Axis intelligence agencies in Shanghai’s neutral French Concession, Saturday Fiction tracks famed actress and Allied agent Jean Yu (Gong Li) as she — having returned to the city with the cover of assuming the lead role in a play directed by her former lover, Tan Na (Mark Chao) — attempts to extract information pertaining to Japan’s pacific arena military strategies, and eventually discovers the plans for what will become an assured historical event: the attack on Pearl Harbour. Like Lou Ye’s wartime, Shanghai-set Purple Butterfly, Saturday Fiction shares a common respect for a classical form of cinema — one to which, among his Sixth Generation contemporaries, Lou remains curiously alone in paying homage. Each film references Casablanca and To Have and Have Not through its use of location — and The Big Sleep with regard to narrative complexity. But, in Saturday Fiction, another reference presents itself: Josef von Sternberg’s Dishonored, which likewise revolves around an examination of matters of desire, gender politics, agency, deception, and self-realization in the world of espionage. Von Sternberg imagined his film’s cold ending as the result of individuals’ manipulations, while Lou conceives of humanity’s misbegotten and confused place in an unchangeable historical, even cosmic, tragedy of desire and realisation. Despite being notably cheaper, smaller scale, and less politically ambitious than the year’s other Lou film, The Shadow Play, Saturday Fiction is likely the more formally enterprising and experimental of the two — in addition to featuring a globe-spanning cast. Though beholden to filmmaking’s pivot to digital, Lou’s preferred handheld shooting method remains elegant; his shots are unusually composed, chiefly at mid-distance, and develop psychological tension in their simultaneous proximity and slight removal, while the camera’s more general immediacy and willowy movements root the viewer in a world as the characters encounter it. The structural device of the film’s theatrical production subtly interrupts and blurs into the wider film, both narratively and formally, with individual scenes and their locales coming to serve as discrete blocks of theatrical staging in and of themselves — a sensation only heightened by the dizzyingly fluid camera and the ever-shifting intentions of characters’ interior and exterior actions. All told, as a rewiring of many cinematic coordinates — and original in more than a few ways besides — Saturday Fiction is quite a remarkable work, delivering as a technical exercise in digital esotericism, an example of a truly global vision, and an uncompromising commitment to desire and personhood that blinds as much as it guides in a continuum of violence and control. And Lou’s concept here is not only descriptive of the problematic encountered by his characters — it’s also one which surely expresses artistic concerns of the Chinese filmmaker himself. Matt McCracken
Noah Baumbach doesn’t like risk. Even when his films are impressive — and they often are — their formal parameters remain fairly limited. His collaborations with Greta Gerwig pushed further — but it’s his latest, Marriage Story, that might eventually come to feel like a transitional work within his filmography. Twinned montages introduce the film’s central couple: Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) — the former an experimental theater director and New York native, and the latter a Los Angeles-born actress who wants to flirt with film and television work after some years on the stage. The narration lists all their respective best attributes; knowledge of their impending divorce follows immediately after. Immediately, then, Baumbach sets up the formal template of the film, which introduces exaggerated, even caricatured types, then offers sundry details to modulate or even overturn the typification — which is also to say the opposite of what goes on during divorce proceedings, where small slippages are turned into deadly character flaws. The early scene where Nicole meets with a high-powered divorce lawyer (a superb Laura Dern, channelling Renata Klein from Big Little Lies) puts this model into practice, with Johansson’s mannered, tic-heavy performance placed alongside a bracing monologue about Nicole’s history with Charlie, accompanied by a slow zoom into close-up that gradually pares away the former. Still, even when Baumbach stretches himself, it feels as if he’s holding back. Driver’s late-breaking Sondheim performance is one of the Marriage Story’s bona fide highlights — yet even here, Baumbach merely has the camera follow Charlie, feint at breaking off the performance, then push in to a close-up. More daring is a rapidly escalating spat between the couple, which starts out in the usual quip-heavy Baumbach mode before heading into vicious barb-trading that registers not unlike an experimental theater exercise. It’s the rare moment where Baumbach risks actual failure — and that, in itself, might be reckoned as a kind of success. Lawrence Garcia
A dread dark creeps in from the frame’s edges in The Giant, images emerging and receding from the background’s blackness, the negative space both dominant and ominous. Candle flames fail to interrupt the tenebrous compositions (a palette crafted via nighttime shoots with a natural lack of lighting and through underexposing the film). Fireworks throw insinuations of color against teenaged faces and revels, and bodies are under perpetual attack from the sticky Georgia humidity. Ever-present, rolling sweat beads glisten in lighter light. Debut director David Raboy’s visuals both drive and guide The Giant, proving an instructive tonal key and even transmogrifying into a fully-fledged and menacing character. Ostensibly, the film concerns a young girl on the eve of adulthood: traumas large (her mother’s suicide), small (ex-boyfriend troubles), and indeterminate (recent, mysterious deaths) inform an apparent emotional untethering.
But even this description is too simple. Raboy filters an already loose narrative through an avant-garde lens, and his interest remains committed to abstraction. The idyllic, small town southern setting is familiar, as are the rural exercises in binge drinking, nocturnal swims, and Fourth of July merriment. But everything here remains distinctly heightened, the characters speaking mostly in considered poetics and the film’s melancholy so thick as to be nearly breathable. It’s audacious, affected filmmaking, something like a soap opera stripped of all winks and nods and distilled down to only its dark grime, and that lack of subtlety is sure to turn off plenty who stumble into its post-Faulkner milieu — it loosely shares not just the author’s dizzying narrative construction but also the soft supernaturalism and sinister underpinnings of the Southern Gothic tradition. Raboy complicates this ennui with a layering approach, scenes informing and subverting and contradicting each other, establishing a baseline of calm chaos and building a torrential sense of inevitability. Grief, fear, anxiety, and mental illness swirl and interact, and the story — which is both a misleading and reductive term here — finally becomes one about life’s comforts and familiarity co-existing alongside a sense of existential and proximate doom, and the small mythmaking we employ to explain the monsters in our minds. There’s a dreaminess to The Giant that’s not dissimilar to the work of Apichatpong Weeresthakul, though the Thai filmmaker’s delicate, oblique fluidity is here transformed into more brazen nightmare, or fevered dream, the effect lending a sense of unsettled temporality and, thus, universality. The result of this admittedly strange cocktail of mood and influence is an almost avant-garde exercise in gothic menace, the horror inexplicable and inescapable, and here it’s life’s steady progress that fuels all fear.
A barrage of cuts set to the metronome of a ticking clock fragments the daily routine in and around a meat market in the opening moments of Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu, suggesting that the film to follow might be an overwhelming sensory experience. But despite later outbursts of violence, this mundane montage is the film at its most enthralling as it soon after settles into a more arrhythmic forward motion where form takes a backseat. Set over the course of a single night, after a buffalo escapes from a butcher and wreaks havoc across the town, Jallikattu focuses on the large group of men that come together to find and kill the animal. Only, none of them can get along. The arrival of out of towners and the recruitment of a pariah to the cause further complicates matters. Soon, the giant search party has fragmented physically and philosophically. Debates over how to kill the beast are just as likely to break out as fist fights. Is this allegory? You bet. And while the cultural specifics might be lost on Western audiences (myself included), the big picture is easy to pick up on. This is a film with masculinity, capitalism and environmentalism on its mind. To the film’s credit, it’s almost never heavy handed, save a thudding visual metaphor in its very last moments, graciously leaving interpretation up for grabs. What rankles here is that for all of Pellissery’s talents–a few bravura compositions confirm the dude has an eye–he fails to enliven brawling and animal attacks, which you’d think should be exciting on their own. Instead, every violent reappearance of the buffalo is dead dull as it barrels into its would-be captors with the apparent force of an amateur stuntman pulling punches. Not that the humans, who Pellissery only lightly fleshes out via flashback and jumps between so often as to trivialize the notion of a character worth caring about, fare much better. A bit more focus and a lot more force might have brought the whole thing together. Christopher Mello
Anne at 13,000 Ft.
Anne at 13,000 Ft. only occasionally utilizes medium shots, and nothing wide, so committed is it to staying close to its titular subject, to actualizing the suffocating feel of her existence. Anne’s (Deragh Campbell) presence vacillates between lax and unhinged, with a kind of frenzy always apparent beneath the surface. Sometimes, this is played endearingly, all pranks and eccentricity, in a way that evinces a puckish quality — that transforms Anne’s nonconformist energy into a grounded realization of a manic pixie dream girl (sans dream). At other times, Anne’s actions are discomfiting, and often attributed, by herself, to a miscommunication or stick-up-the-butt unreceptiveness to her own self-perceived charms. What Anne at 13,000 Ft. is ultimately up to, then, remains appealingly vague, sometimes suggesting an lack of preparation for both the idleness and anxiety of adulthood, sometimes a more nefarious psychological disturbance. Rules constantly prove inhibiting to Anne, and behavior modification seems mostly unattainable. But certain details of chronology, paired with the accelerated narrative progression, suggest a more sudden onset of difficulty for the character. Director Kazik Radwanski’s approach remains steady, and effective, regardless: A handheld camera maintains proximity to Anne, flitting about faces in flux. Uncertainty and concern and exasperation is captured, not only in Anne’s expressions, but in those of people around her. This unease and volatility adds to obvious tonal and dramatic similarities to John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence. But Anne at 13,000 Ft. stands on its own — thanks to its opacity. Where Cassavetes opted for an expansive treatment, for deeper theme-building, and for more of a study of external stimuli, Radwanski’s film is all concision, the lack of context resulting in something closer to car-crash viscerality than psychological probing. To this end, the latter film becomes more kinetic as its condensed runtime elapses, the increased emotional and relational chaos reflected in more disorderly images and bristly lensing. All this informs the final image here: a moment of welcome calm, the screen emptied of Anne’s presence for the first time as she finds respite, by choice, in freefall. Luke Gorham