by InRO Staff Festival Coverage Film

Nightstream 2020 — Dispatch 3: Black Bear, Darkness, Lucky

October 15, 2020
Credit: Nightstream

Black Bear

In the debate between mimesis and anti-mimesis, Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear proffers a third possibility — that life is art in organic action. It’s perhaps inaccurate, and is certainly reductive, to suggest that these are three answers to the same question, as Levine almost certainly does not intend his film to be a refutation of either familiar maxim. But approaching the film with this general framework in mind does lend aid in penetrating its intricate design. A diptych work (one that tantalizingly ends with the promise of an infinite extension), Black Bear is constructed of two tempestuous halves that inform and enrich each other, shifting motivation and pathology among its three primaries and introducing a crucial meta framework. The film’s first half finds Allison (Aubrey Plaza), a film director, seeking respite at a woodsy artists’ retreat run by Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant wife Blair (Sarah Gadon). There is simmering, passive-aggressive tension between the latter two, and Allison both fans the flames and lightens the mood, according to her whims — at one point she announces, “I’ve been lying since the second I got here.” This proclamation is foundational to the film itself, concerned as it is with the nature of authenticity vs. performance in our lives and the measure of control we have over that particular dichotomy. It’s also a line that shortly leads into Black Bear’s back half, which is where its thesis begins in earnest.

In this second section, Levine delivers something like an inversion of the film’s first half, but it’s less strictly antipodal than a warped feedback loop, of sorts. Here, Gabe is the film director, married to Allison, the film’s star, but conspiring with Blair to raise his wife’s suspicion as to his fidelity in order to encourage a method performance; unsurprisingly, the film’s plot reflects the first half’s aura of paranoia and domestic insecurity. Much of the narrative fodder remains the same but with altered context in the second half: a lakeside cabin provides the setting, but also present this go-round is a film crew; an uncomfortable, prolonged scene of domestic discord unfolds, only here it’s part of the film (within-a-film) that Gabe is making; and various details — nighttime swims, substance-aided meltdowns, abandoned beds — take new shape. Indeed, the film recalls Mulholland Drive in its unsettled mood, hazy dream logic, and in the way it deals with notions of identity, particularly in the face of cultural expectations but also of life’s general evolution; a bear even makes a foreboding appearance…twice. But Black Bear is less of a puzzle than an impressionistic articulation of identity lost; teasing out one-to-one connections here is fruitless in the face of the film’s more broadly suggestive tenor, which admittedly both generates and forfeits power. Where viewers are conditioned to expect a certain mode of reality, one that suggests a more casual, governing narrative, Levine is instead content to offer only two tenuous parts that speak to the same truth — that this perhaps untidy amalgam births a greater honesty. Given all this, both Wildean and Greco conceptions of the life-art relationship find footing, but reducing Levine’s playful two-panel contrast to any film-specific discourse is restricting — this isn’t just another self-involved, self-congratulatory film about the act of making film and/or art. If anything, Levine leans toward anti-mimesis, but Black Bear boasts a tragic inflection that subverts such an easy reading: the film suggests, despite the deliberate manipulations its characters employ, that life is refractory, resistant to our efforts at control, which amount to futile, sometimes beautiful and sometimes cruel, works of art. Luke Gorham


Darkness

It’s not quite accurate to describe Darkness as magic realism, but it’s not strictly a genre piece, either. Much like the children at the story’s center, the film is best considered a kind of chrysalis, shifting and changing shape as the narrative progresses. Directed and co-written by Emanuela Rossi, it’s a film that begins as a fable of sorts, before gradually working in an emotional realism not typically found in this kind of genre-adjacent fare. In other words, it’s a film that progresses from the vague to the specific, from the symbolic to the concrete. Darkness is a tale of three sisters: there’s Stella (Denise Tantucci), the oldest sister, who looks after middle child Luce (Gaia Bocci), and young Aria (Olimpia Tosatto), probably not much older than five. They live a sequestered existence in a dilapidated manor with their father (Valerio Binasco), who leaves each day in a hazmat suit and gas mask to roam a post-apocalyptic wasteland gathering food for his children and fighting off marauders. At least, that’s what he tells his daughters, who aren’t allowed to leave the house. The girls while away the days doing what kids do, playing dress-up and having tea parties. Only Stella is old enough to remember the “before” times, including their mother, who their father claims left the family to wander the scorched earth outside. But something here is very wrong; father is a tyrant, a religious zealot who abuses his children, leaving them alone with no food for increasingly long periods of time and sits around drinking and smoking when he bothers to be at home. 

These early scenes are vaguely reminiscent of Dogtooth and Jim Mickle’s version of We Are What We Are, with a cloistered family unit cut off from society and partaking in strange rituals, like a fractured fairy tale. Father reads end-times scripture and browbeats the children, occasionally dressing them up in comically outlandish outfits so they can safely go outside (but only for a few minutes). The film changes gears when it (fairly quickly) reveals the truth, that there was no apocalyptic event and the world outside is much the same as always. After father has gone missing for several days, and fearing starvation, Stella escapes the home to find food and instead finds this truth. It’s here that Darkness leaves behind its more obvious influences and becomes something entirely different, a tale of a young woman attempting to extricate herself and her sisters from a cult. Tantucci is a remarkable performer, carrying the film on her frightfully thin shoulders. She navigates a lot of tricky emotional territory, at times relishing her position as the eldest child and father’s favorite, while also realizing that father is a monster. Early scenes of her tentatively engaging with the outside world are perfectly realized, with a mixture of terror and wide-eyed wonder. Rossi also toes a tricky line, gradually making clear that father is a sexual predator, and that he has turned his lecherous attentions from Stella to Luce, without (thankfully) actually showing any explicit molestation. Toxic masculinity as abusive cult isn’t a particularly new idea, but it bears repeating, and Rossi brings vitality to what could have been a slog of misplaced good intentions. Befitting a fairy tale, the monster can be vanquished, but Rossi ends the film on a cryptic, ambiguous note: the world these girls have escaped to might be just as frightening as the one they’ve left behind. Daniel Gorman


Rose Plays Julie

So cold and somber that it becomes dramatically inert, Rose Plays Julie aspires to be a metaphysical investigation into identity but instead gets swallowed up in its own moody ennui. Written and directed by the duo of Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, the film begins with Rose (Ann Skelly) speaking in voiceover to persons unknown, as she imagines meeting someone for the first time. It quickly follows that Rose, a veterinary student in her early 20s, was adopted as a baby and has somehow tracked down her birth mother. Rose has already decided to contact her, despite the adoption papers specifically noting that the mother wished to remain anonymous. It’s not entirely clear what Rose wants to accomplish with this meeting, other than a vague declaration of “finding the person she was supposed to be,” and the first half of Rose Plays Julie teases the possibility of becoming a horror film, with Rose positioned as the stalker (the name on her original birth certificate is Julie, which given the film’s title foreshadows a kind of roleplaying). Rose’s birth mother is a woman named Ellen (Orla Brady), a middle-aged actress who lives in London and has moved on with her life, getting married and having another child. Rose fixates first on Ellen’s movies, then tracks her down on set to force a meeting. Ellen eventually relents and agrees to a conversation with Rose that she hopes will put the young woman at ease, or at least get her out of her hair. Instead, after some prodding, Ellen finally confesses that Rose was the result of a rape and that Ellen has no desire to either relive the long-ago trauma or further engage with its lingering consequence — namely, Rose. 

To describe more of the plot would be a disservice to any potential viewers out there, as the film changes gears to first focus on the burgeoning relationship between Rose and Ellen, and then introduces Peter (Aidan Gillen), who may or may not be Ellen’s rapist and Rose’s father. Rose Plays Julie has atmosphere to spare but quickly becomes monotonous; Molloy and Lawlor have a nice eye for crisp, symmetrical compositions, and their camera glides over surfaces with a calm remove. But they frequently rely on the same formal tricks, slowly pushing in on a figure or object, then slowly, slowly pulling the camera back again. While initially effective at eliciting a creeping sense of dread, it becomes dulled through overuse. Young Skelly has an impossible role; that she is a void seeking an identity is part of the point, but the filmmakers can’t seem to navigate how to make her more than that. She’s less a character than a concept that hasn’t fully taken shape. As a veterinarian student, Rose is privy to animal euthanasia and studying organs for signs of disease, clearly worried that her violent origins and familial lineage might have infected her. Like the film itself, it’s a metaphor that’s simultaneously aloof and heavy-handed. There’s admittedly a lot to like here, including the performances; Brady in particular is fantastic, navigating tricky emotional terrain as she decides just how much she wants to be involved in Rose’s life, and anyone familiar with Gillen from his time on Game of Thrones should pretty well be able to predict the true nature of his character. It’s a shame, then, that the filmmakers can’t figure out how to fully explore the questions of identity they tentatively raise (at one point a character leaves someone a note asking “Who Are You?” just to underline the theme), eventually sidelining Rose altogether and retreating to well-worn revenge tropes. Evil acts have consequences, but there’s only forced emotional catharsis here. Daniel Gorman


Lucky

A masked man breaks into the home of a seemingly happy and well-adjusted couple. She is appropriately terrified; he seems nonplussed by the events, explaining that it happens every night, and that once they incapacitate the intruder, he will vanish. He is right. So what the hell is going on here? That is the central hook of new horror-thriller Lucky, written by and starring Brea Grant. Shades of Happy Death Day color the first-half, as wife May must come up with elaborate ways to kill the stranger each subsequent night, especially after hubby goes AWOL following a bad fight. It’s appropriate, then, that May has literally written the book on modern-day female empowerment, authoring an ethos that women must go it alone if they are ever to truly face their fears. The subsequent metaphor, then, practically writes itself. However, as new wrinkles begin to emerge, the viewer is forced to reassess the true intent of Grant and director Natasha Kermani. The film’s initial playfulness gives way to a searing, righteous anger at the notion of women doomed to victimhood, forever trapped in a cycle of fear and doubt, questioning what they did to deserve such misery, brainwashed to believe they must endure it alone. It makes sense, then, that men are portrayed as sniveling, ineffectual babies who bolt at the first sign of trouble, complaining of hurt feelings. 

With a lean running time of 80 minutes, Lucky surprisingly has a lot on its mind. It’s only too bad that the filmmakers assume the audience needs to be spoon-fed the message, practically stopping the film dead in its tracks to articulate its every thought and feeling. Sure, perhaps that’s the point — that it’s 2020 and we are still having this conversation proves that the message is not sinking in, and maybe those who most need to hear it have no time for arty pretense. But Grant and Kermani try to have it both ways, to the point that once we finally get to the ending, the tone has veered dangerously close to one of sermonizing. There’s no denying that the film is a compelling watch, with Kermani even deploying the overused Dutch angle to surprisingly successful effect — the film’s bookstore scene proves a stand-out. In any case, Lucky is certainly an improvement on Grant’s previous film, the just-released 12 Hour Shift (which she also directed), which managed only to be obnoxious in its all-out pursuit of cleverness. Lucky at least has its head in the right place, and while good intentions alone are never sufficient, given the other considerable strengths on display, it’s almost enough. Steven Warner


Anything for Jackson

As festival season has gone mostly digital this year, we here at InRO have been able to cover a lot of films from all over the world. Of course, certain trends and patterns appear over time, not least of which is that, for genre fans at least, it’s apparently still shockingly difficult to make a good horror-comedy. The shadow of Sam Raimi and his Evil Dead trilogy looms large, and yet very few have figured out how to replicate its mix of broad humor and gross-out gore. So we are very happy to report that Anything for Jackson, directed by Justin G. Dyck, is a total blast, a welcome bit of pitch-black gallows comedy that still manages some downright creepy vibes and a few great, disgusting moments. In other words, it’s a blast. 

Sheila McCarthy and Julian Richings are Audrey and Henry Walsh, an older couple who are mourning the loss of their daughter and grandson, Jackson. They’re fairly prim and proper, with a spacious, well-appointed home, and have the easy rapport of long-married people. They’re also Satanists who have kidnapped a pregnant woman (Konstantina Mantelos) in an effort to summon Jackson’s spirit into the unborn child’s body. Dyck sets up the narrative with brisk economy; it’s funny that these delightful old folks are Satan worshipers, but Dyck and screenwriter Keith Cooper don’t belabor the joke. McCarthy and Richings are perfectly cast as the Walsh’s, who have the resources to meticulously plan this supernatural ceremony but are still clearly in over their heads (early scenes of them getting Mantelos into their home and then reading her a polite, pre-written statement about her abduction are particularly funny). But things go south quickly, as the spell goes awry and summons various spirits, all clamoring to be reborn, as well as the attention of a nosy handyman and a police detective investigating Mantelos’ disappearance. 

Dyck carefully orchestrates the gradual escalation from comedy to outright terror, as the apparitions get more aggressive (and bloodier). No one here is winking or playing down to the material; instead, the filmmakers understand that villains are more interesting when their motivations are relatable. The Walsh’s are clearly doing the wrong thing (and are aware of it; these aren’t mustache-twirling villains) but for the (they believe) right reasons. Their grief has superseded their morality.  There’s palpable regret when they see the mayhem they’ve unleashed, their upbeat optimism over resurrecting their beloved grandchild curdling into a fearful resignation. It’s a tricky balancing act, and everyone involved here pulls it off with aplomb. Anything for Jackson is a rare treat, just in time for Halloween. Daniel Gorman

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