Credit: Tribeca Film Festival
by InRO Staff Featured Film

Tribeca Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 1: Vulcanizadora, The Damned, Federer: Twelve Final Days

June 12, 2024


Joel Potrykus offered viewers a kind of hell on earth in 2014 when he released Buzzard, a crusty cumrag of a movie about the drudgery and paranoia of contemporary lower class life. It’s utterly brilliant, with a clear-eyed point of view that never looks down on its abjectly miserable protagonists — Marty Jackitansky (Joshua Burge), a temp worker at a mortgage company who pulls small-time, seemingly innocuous scams for extra money, and his friend Derek (Potrykus) — while also never shying away from sincerely investigating their desperate motivations. In many ways it’s a very funny film, and has a brilliant comic cadence in its story and characterizations. But a sad refrain accompanies its comedy.

Potrykus’ latest film, Vulcanizadora, revisits Buzzard’s central characters ten years later with a new strain of melancholy running through it. Where Buzzard‘s sadness stemmed from an obstinate refusal by its protagonist to truly learn from his mistakes, Vulcanizadora’s is raw, sincere, and genuinely existential. Perhaps this is because Potrykus has, in the years since Buzzard’s release, become a father to a young boy, Solo, who here plays a crucial role in the film as Derek’s son and from whom Derek is on the verge of becoming estranged. Or perhaps it’s simply because time eventually strips away ignorance of life’s true misery. For whatever reason, this sadness has rendered Marty and Derek as open wounds; and instead of finding a way to patch those wounds up, Potrykus has chosen to blow them open even wider.

We rejoin Marty and Derek as they set off on a walk in the woods. Just as in Buzzard, their off-couple dynamic sings beautifully in the loneliness of the Northern Michigan forests. They’re simultaneously childlike (hitting tree trunks with sticks, shooting firecrackers at each other) and childish (lamenting a forgotten set of keys, bickering over directions). The levity of these opening sequences is tinged with a heavy mystery, which Potrykus deftly coaxes out via minimal dialogue, precisely though never fussily composed long takes, and Burge’s blank canvas of a face. All we know as these two men stumble through the woods is that something has happened, and they’re looking for an escape — the ultimate escape.

There’s an inevitability to the film’s major turning point. By the time we reach it, we know pretty much exactly what Marty and Derek are getting ready to do, why they’re doing it, and even — gruesomely — how they’re going to do it. And when Marty eventually returns to Grand Rapids, wallows in the emptiness of his home life (where his father would rather have already seen the last of his son a long time ago), goes to court, and fucks up most of his well-meaning stabs at repentance, the once-tightly wound tension just hangs in the air. It’s not to say these narrative developments are unimportant or perfunctory — they are brilliantly directed, subtly fill in the deliberate gaps of the film’s first half, and offer showcase after showcase of Burge’s gift for making bold choices in expression and temperament feel small and instinctual. But by the end of the film, the most important thing to have “happened” took place 30 minutes ago, and the narrative that follows is secondary.

What’s most essential in Vulcanizadora is the space between things: between Marty and Derek, one man who has nothing left to live for and knows it and another who realizes he does have something he wants to live for; between a man and his son, the threat of loss ever-present; and between actions and consequences, where desperate choices can intervene. It’s inside these spaces where Potrykus clarifies what feels like a decade of searching. His expression of 21st-century misery is no less potent here than in Buzzard, its rage-fuelled primal scream perhaps even more deeply felt because it’s stifled by a symbolic fist in the mouth, lest those with innocent ears hear it. CHRIS CASSINGHAM

Credit: Tribeca Film Festival

The Damned

The best thing that can be said for co-writer/director Thordur Palsson’s debut feature film The Damned is that it looks and feels like a real movie. This is not damning with faint praise; in an era of prestige TV and regurgitated IP, images have been unconscionably degraded, washed out from poorly calibrated monitors or cropped for phones and TikTok. Palsson and cinematographer Eli Arenson have instead composed a nightmarish landscape film that is frigid and oppressive, all the better to concoct a tale of madness that tears a small fishing village apart. It’s visually sumptuous, even if the screenplay leaves much to be desired.

The Damned begins with a moral quandary: a group of fishermen sequestered for the long winter in a remote locale are learning that their meager provisions will not last until the spring thaw. Eva (Odessa Young) owns the boat in the stead of her recently deceased husband, while Ragnar (Rory McCann) leads the men. So while the men answer to Ragnar, Eva has final say on when and how often they can use the boat, a fact that does not sit well with them. Tensions mount and tempers flare when the group discover a large vessel that has run aground on the rocky shoreline surrounding the village, trapped there by the high tide. One of the men, Daniel (Joe Cole), wants them to sail out to the vessel to rescue any survivors, while Ragnar says no — they don’t even have enough food for themselves, let alone for any survivors there might be. The men look to Eva for the final decision, and after some deliberation, she sides with Ragnar. 

Matters get more complicated when a barrel of cured meats wash up on shore the next day. The ship might have more food that can help them survive the winter, but once the high tide recedes, any wreckage will disperse out to sea. Despite the obvious dangers, Eva allows the men to take the boat to search the wreckage, but when some sailors — still very much alive, clinging to rocks like wet rats — try to climb aboard, the fishermen fight them off lest they capsize the boat and dump all of them into the frigid waters. In the melee, Daniel stabs a man in the face, a gory bit of business that shocks Eva into stunned silence. Upon their return to shore, the group discovers that all of their efforts have netted them some brandy and lamp oil — hardly worth the cold-blooded murder of a stranger.

These early scenes are rendered in sharp detail, with an emphasis on the vastness of the land and the harsh textures of the cramped living spaces. Palsson adroitly utilizes the widescreen fame, a refreshing change of pace after myriad contemporary films that have no idea what to do with the 2.35:1 format. Instead of leaning on empty negative space, Palsson arranges figures within the frame, creating a rhythm between the bustling group dynamic and Eva’s isolation.  It’s fine work, which makes it all the more unfortunate when the film devolves into a bog standard bit of elevated horror claptrap. Some of the men are superstitious and worried that the bodies of the dead sailors might return as “Draugur,” a fear dismissed by Eva and Daniel. But soon they all start seeing things; some fall ill, and a shadowy figure haunts the nooks and crannies of the shack. Eva is plagued by images of the sailor that Daniel stabbed, his mouth twisted into a rictus sneer. Are there ghosts afoot? Or is it all in Eva’s head? You won’t be surprised by the answers. 

It’s just a shame that so much good work is wasted on clichéd narrative beats, in particular an ending that makes thuddingly literal everything that has happened in the film — not unlike a teacher forced to dumb down curriculum to appease the lowest common denominator. Still, mood and atmosphere can get you a long way, and Palsson clearly has ample talent in this regard. Someone needs to tell him that it’s okay to make a horror movie that’s not a metaphor for grief or an exploration of PTSD. You can just make a scary one. DANIEL GORMAN

Federer: Twelve Final Days

Asif Kapadia has had an enviably diverse career as a director, but he’s established himself over the last 15 years — across three films, in particular — as a custodian of legacies. His archival documentaries Senna, Amy, and Maradona married a deftly curatorial eye with a passion for historical sweep, ensuring that the cultural icons at their center, whether living or dead, had their stories conveyed with the complexity they deserved. It would make sense, then, that any sporting giant facing a career milestone with a desire to have it recorded for posterity would want Kapadia at the helm. 

This must have been what Roger Federer thought when he made the decision to retire from professional tennis in 2022. Often referred to as the sport’s greatest artist, Federer is, on paper, the ideal vessel for Kapadia’s preoccupations. The Swiss legend has always been respected as the ultimate sportsman, generous and honest, overflowing with talent, and known outside of his craft as a loving family man. But what is there to excavate from underneath Federer’s reputation during the final 12 days of his professional tennis career?

With Federer: Twelve Final Days as the answer, it appears disappointingly little. Immediately — in fact, before you even start watching the film — you realize that this isn’t going to be the same kind of documentary that recontextualized the complicated careers of icons like Ayrton Senna, Amy Winehouse, or Diego Maradona. Chiefly, this is because Kapadia (here co-directing with Joe Sabia) is tasked with making a film that documents a specific and, crucially, ongoing, period in time. It’s necessarily imbued with the immediacy of its action, but it establishes a limit for the film; the filmmaker’s ability to capture the historical sweep of one person’s career through archival footage gave those three previous works a freedom of expression, and a storytelling approach liberated from the watchful eyes of its subjects.

This isn’t to say that Federer is totally lacking historical context or a critical eye. Kapadia knows that is what people coming to this film, both as Federer fans and fans of his filmography, expect. And indeed, the archival footage included in the film is thoughtfully curated and cleverly matched to visual and emotional cues in the contemporary storyline. Kapadia understands how the minute and the grandiose, the past and the present, inform each other. So, when Federer prepares for his final professional match in the gym, a seemingly innocuous gesture like lying on the ground to stretch means something more when the film cuts to a similarly physical act in the past, such as the collapse of relief and exhaustion on winning Wimbledon more than 15 years earlier.

One of the film’s strengths is to honor the generosity Federer embodied as a player and man by holding space within an already complex and dense piece of storytelling for the other legendary players that played a role in cementing his legacy. When the story closes in on the final match of Federer’s career, its retrospective inclinations kick into higher gear and pay tribute to the likes of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Rafael Nadal, the last of whom Federer shared his greatest rivalry and his greatest friendship with. Just as Federer stares down the end of his career, there is a generous recognition that these three players are, perhaps, just a few steps behind him, carrying their own legacies of success, defeat, and physical wear.

The film asks simultaneous questions about legacies: how they’re bestowed and by whom, and how one looks after their own. Federer’s tendency to multitask in this way makes it such that two different films fight over creative space, and the less interesting one wins out. It’s already clear that the “typical” Kapadia documentary form has been necessarily compromised by the needs of this particular film and the fact that its subject is alive. And that means the way the film goes about answering these questions lies in the film itself. The sheen of Amazon, of the Roger Federer Foundation, and the tentative and safely manufactured journeys into and underneath Federer’s body of work makes Federer the film feel like a sanitized bit of legacy assurance; it fights against, and wins out over, the more challenging film Kapadia is capable of making, where the past and the present converse with each other, where the smoothly polished reputation of tennis’ greatest player isn’t tarnished but given a chance — perhaps — to deepen and enrich itself with unearthed complexity. As it stands, Kapadia is operating at half-capacity, tentatively crafting a riskless, shallow, though undeniably moving venture that’s more in service of its star than in search of a unique story. CHRIS CASSINGHAM

Credit: Zach Dilgard/Tribeca Film Festival

The Shallow Tale of a Writer Who Decided to Write About a Serial Killer

Narrative, as academics and book club members alike will tell you, is as much about process as it is about the final product. A story that engages throughout, only to falter in its resolution, will often be duly lamented; a novel that picks apart the conventions it adapts usually garners more attention than the more prosaic of its ilk. It is to these observations that literary metafiction attests, for what better way to champion the joys of reading and writing than to question their very enterprises relentlessly? Such is the conceit of Tolga Karaçelik’s latest feature, boasting a mouthful of a title — The Shallow Tale of a Writer Who Decided to Write About a Serial Killer — that affixes personal agency (“decided”), decries it insufficient (“shallow”), and renders the whole thing (“tale”) non-committal anyway. Dark comedy and situational cluelessness come to an exasperating if drolly invigorating head, which is almost always the default for films set in New York but works, luckily, as a charm rather than as criticism here.

Keane (John Magaro), a small-time writer with outsized ambitions, is working on his second book, a speculative romance between a prehistoric woman and a male Neanderthal. But his work hardly amounts to working, and Suzie (Britt Lower), his wife and breadwinner, itches for a divorce from this painfully weak-willed nebbish who can’t quite commit to independent decision-making of any sort, much less his fictional corpus. Into the tedium of creative bankruptcy springs Kollmick (Steve Buscemi), a bespectacled and surprisingly mild-mannered older man considering his CV. A retired serial killer is how he’s introduced to Keane, and his motive for befriending the latter, while less gruesome, still contains room for ambiguity: Keane will write a book about his exploits, having first acclimatized to the mind and mentality of those who murder. But what’s in it for Kollmick, really? And how will this acclimatization take place?

The Shallow Tale… may disappoint expectations of a snappy, straightforward psychological journey, and its many detours fall just short of answering these questions. Instead, Karaçelik’s frenzied screenplay embraces its winding tonal shifts, speaking to a greater freedom within the act of literary improvisation and engendering, more modestly, the thrill of seeing its characters inhabit and exchange very different registers. Kollmick comes up to Keane’s place late at night for a drink, and Suzie, mistaking him for a marriage counselor, sees this as a mark of her hubby’s newfound sense of initiative. Barely a few scenes after, as both men attempt to kidnap Keane’s literary agent, does this initiative morph into something more nefarious and alarming for the usually impassive professional organizer. This blend of sympathy and neuroticism suffuses the film, as Keane’s pathetic disposition (Magaro’s character in Past Lives, essentially, but dialed up to an eleven) and the balance between disquieting and casually genial (for the other two leads) make for an enlivening reinvention of the soap opera. While not disarmingly reflexive or insistent upon its grandeur, The Shallow Tale… does venture that an author’s success, irrespective of Pulitzers or pulp fiction, is measured by the whoops and hollers of their readers. And by this standard, it measures pretty well itself.   MORRIS YANG

Swimming Home

Steady hums and inverted camerawork in the early moments of Justin Anderson’s psychological drama Swimming Home are strategies of disorientation, signaling its intent to unmoor the audience from reality just as husband and wife, Joseph and Isabel (played respectively by Christopher Abbott and Mackenzie Davis), are unmoored. While often separated, she a globe-trotting war reporter and he an elusive, melancholic, house-bound poet, their convergence on a Grecian villa during their summer holiday also coincides with an emotional convergence, and the disjointed compositions inside and outside the car — with faces obscured, meticulously cropped out of sight — suggests their latest reunion won’t be an easy one.

Joseph is immediately defined by a curious placidity, verging on indifference. A sense of detachment from his immediate reality emanates from Abbott’s closed-off face with an unnerving ease. It would be a remarkably effective character choice on Abbott’s part if it weren’t for the fact that his demeanor never wavers throughout the film. Nevertheless, it’s clear Joseph is going through something — something deeply personal, internal, unspeakable. His poetry has all but dried up, and he doesn’t so much as indicate his troubles to Isabel, despite her pleas. She has her own troubles, too; namely, a sense of dissatisfaction with her home life each time she returns from some far-flung corner of the Earth. These domestic troubles take some coaxing out of Anderson’s oblique, stuttering script, which is defined as much by its gaps in narrative logic as it is by its outright thematic bluntness.

Doing most of the coaxing — other than a friend and former professor (Nadine Labaki) accompanying them on holiday and the couple’s neglected teenage daughter, Nina (Freya Hannan-Mills), already at the villa — is Kitty (Ariane Labed), a mysterious woman the family discovers floating naked in their swimming pool. Her bleached, wavy bob is a mirror of the villa’s washed-out, pastel-hued facades which practically vibrate with heat in the blinding sunlight. Kitty brings her own kind of heat to Joseph and Isabel’s icy relationship. The casual ease with which she struts around perfect strangers, totally naked, is one thing, but it’s the provocation that Isabel throws out by allowing her to stay in their guest house which suggests a deeper power, one that might force Joseph to at last lay out his troubles.

It’s difficult to identify Swimming Home’s narrative propulsion, because much of it unfolds in languid vignettes, whether a walk in the woods, a trip to a gay cruising spot, or an outing to the nearby Ponyland whose ubiquitous advertising and stalking presence in the film turns out to be disappointingly ornamental. The film prefers, instead, to traffic in weird vibes. It takes its cues from the Greek Weird Wave, a micro-movement of early-2000s Greek cinema popularized by Yorgos Lanthimos (he is thanked in the credits and moves through the film like a specter thanks to Labed, his wife and frequent collaborator), as well as the the pool-centric, quasi-intellectual, Euro-bourgeois milieus of Luca Guadagnino, François Ozon, and Jacques Deray.

Kitty is perhaps the strongest presence in the film, and as a result is often the fulcrum on which the rest of the characters’ dynamics and actions balance. We’re told she’s a friend of the villa’s groundskeeper, but nothing more. “My mother was a river, we were always on the move,” she remarks early on when questioned about her origins. It’s only through sheer force of weirdness that she makes her mark on the film, admittedly not difficult when Davis and Abbott spend the film’s runtime giving masterclasses in emotional neutrality that feel less a result of careful restraint than directorial timidity. Kitty’s odd behavior manifests in a number of puzzling ways designed to elicit as much confusion as possible: she deliberately eats poisonous plants, so that if she’s eaten by a bear it will die too; she pricks her finger and wipes the blood on the wall of Joseph and Isabel’s bedroom, a curious ploy meant to be read as a marking of territory; and at one point she speaks to Joseph in his native Bosnian, saying that she’s there to take him home and his parents are looking for him, before taking a long, belabored piss on his foot. We also see her rehearsing a strange, contortionist dance in her room, one that mirrors the avant-garde dancing that Isabel goes to see by herself each night instead of eating dinner with her family.

All of this weirdness adds up to very little, save for an elaborately choreographed finale, in which Kitty — in precisely framed and timed cross-cuts between Joseph and Isabel’s bedroom and the modern-industrial performance space we’ve seen Isabel visit — crab-walks up Joseph and Isabel’s bed as well as up to a pyramid of faces, their gaping maws presumably meant to reflect our own response to this out-of-body display. This final coming-together between Kitty and Joseph is meant to signify something, and indeed the film does eventually reveal Joseph’s troubles: as a child he escaped the war in Bosnia, but his parents were killed, and the mixture of guilt, fear, and sick longing to have died there as well has wrenched him from reality. But this revelation comes far too late: too late to make up for 90 minutes of wading through the overstretched histories of underwritten characters, and too late even for Joseph himself. CHRIS CASSINGHAM