TIFF Diary #1: ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer,’ ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq,’ ‘Molly’s Game,’ ‘Brad’s Status,’ ‘The Final Year’


The Killing of a Sacred Deer opens with a giant close-up of a heart in mid-surgery, pumping away as operatic music blasts over the soundtrack, an image that’s basically a pre-emptive rebuke – yes, there’s a heart beating somewhere in this movie. Deer is the latest from Yorgos Lanthimos, the deadpan provocateur behind Dogtooth and The Lobster, and his new film capitalizes on our baggage from those films and the precise deployment of jarring visual and aural weapons to make even the everyday events of its opening scenes seems menacing. The camera prowls, restlessly; the compositions are inexplicably disconcerting; the score is a collection of ominous strings and rattles of sound.

He’s also initially reluctant to fill in the details of the troubling relationship at its center, willing to let us puzzle things out far longer than your average film, instead distracting us with the purposefully stilted quality of the dialogue and acting – all flat, unaffected deliveries of dinner table inanities (“You have lovely hair too. We all have lovely hair.”) He often shoots his characters from a distance, like they’re butterflies on a cork board, and the stylization of presentation and performance can read as alienating – it calls attention to itself, deliberately. And then he puts these characters into a vise, and squeezes.

As with the filmmaker’s previous work, the fluid brew of sex and violence is masterfully executed and emotionally unsettling, but it also becomes a bit of an endurance test, and by a certain point in the final half-hour, Lanthimos’s nihilism begins to fill more than a little performative. (And the casual Iphigenia reference is just a shade on the nose.) But the actors are superb – particularly Kidman, who honors the style while dipping her line readings in acid – and it’s filled with genuinely upsetting images and ideas that burrow under your skin. This is a brutish movie, but a gripping one.

*

Colin Farell is quite good as the patriarch of Sacred Deer, and he also turns up in Roman J. Israel, Esq., writer/director Dan Gilroy’s follow up to the TIFF ’15 sensation Nightcrawler. Denzel Washington takes on the title role, as a brilliant legal mind with a photographic memory who’s somewhere on the spectrum – a painfully standoffish low-talker who can barely make eye contact, he tends to handle the research and writing while his partner goes to the courtroom. But then said partner has a heart attack, and he finds himself doing a job he has carefully sidestepped for years, before deciding that it is quite literally time to cash in.

Washington crafts an eccentric yet engaging performance, but in tuning the movie to the key of an unconventional and, in many ways, unbendable leading character, Gilroy can’t quite find the story’s rhythm. Watching its many false starts and awkward elements, I was reminded of Roger Ebert’s comment about The King of Comedy: “This is a movie that seems ready to explode – but somehow it never does.”

Alas, that’s where the comparisons end. It finally picks up some traction and dynamism in the third act, but the pacing shift is jarring, and the Hail-Mary grab for a satisfying (and thus conventional) conclusion leaves us with too many unwieldy loose ends – and a feel-good final scene that’s patently phony. There are things here worth recommending, like the moody James Newton Howard score and the rich nightscapes by cinematographer Robert Elswitt, and Washington is trying some worthwhile things. But it just never coheres – which is a shame, considering all the talent involved.

*

Jessica Chastain can go a mile a minute, which makes her the ideal leading lady for Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut Molly’s Game; as per usual, his characters talk fast and think faster, and his movie does the same. It’s based on the true story of Molly Bloom, who ran exclusive, high-stakes, private poker games on two coasts, frequented by movie stars, millionaires, and titans of industry, only to get busted two years after running her last room because, whoops, some of her regulars were in deep with the Russian mob.

Sorkin’s script is a structural marvel, intermingling Molly’s backstory and its aftermath, but with carefully considered in-points, out-points, and connecting hinges. Most of Chastain’s latter-day scenes are shared with Idris Elba as her initially reluctant attorney, and it’s a joy to watch these two strong actors lock horns; like the Sorkin-scripted Steve Jobs, the duet dialogue scenes have the juice of fistfights, and the results are electrifying. (Elba even gets a good old-fashioned Aaron Sorkin barn-burner monologue.)

His direction is stylish and snappy – he loves data dumps and explainers, but rarely lets them slow the picture’s considerable momentum. When he does, it’s for good reason; there are few tropes on this earth as worked-over as valuing one’s good name, and yet there’s an entire, emotional dialogue pegged to that notion, and it gets you. And then there’s a tiny, funny button on the end of the scene, a wink from the writer/director that he knows we went along with that risk, and he thanks us for it. Molly’s Game is smart and funny, and though there are a couple of typical Sorkin #problematic moments, they’re fleeting. This is a major step forward, for both the first-time director and his talented star.

*

It’s the night before Brad (Ben Stiller) is taking his son Troy (Austin Abrams) to visit colleges, and he’s got insomnia. As he too often does, he finds himself on social media, taking a late-night inventory of his friends from college and the success they’ve achieved; “I felt like the world was rubbing my nose in something,” he despairs, and the way these friends, and his notions of their lives (good and bad) dominate his imagination, is one of the key subjects of Mike White’s Brad’s Status, in which taking his son to a crossroads in his life forces Brad to visit one of his own. “Some guys have empires,” he wonders. “What do I have?”

White’s script adroitly articulates a specific kind of middle-aged, middle-class ennui. “I just feel like we’re running out of potential,” he tells his wife. “This is it. We’ve plateaued.” Yet over the course of those few days, in ways both expected and surprising, he has his notions punctuated; everyone’s a mess, everyone’s fucked up, everyone’s scared, and everyone assumes everyone else is fine. And often, they are; the film’s best and wisest scene, in fact, finds Brad laying out all his woes, and instead of sympathy, he’s confronted with an intense, and direct, check on his privilege.

White leans perhaps too heavily on Brad’s narration, and could trust his audience more to figure things out on its own. But those voice-overs keenly capture the way one’s mind can surf from one tangent to the next, down a rabbit hole of hypotheticals, getting so into what we don’t have that we miss everything we do. You may have to be of a Certain Age for Brad’s Status to land. But for those who are, it rings loudly with hard truths.

*

Greg Barker’s The Final Year focuses on former President Barack Obama’s foreign policy team – John Kerry, Ben Rhodes, Samantha Power, Susan Rice – but the TIFF public screening I attended burst into spontaneous applause with Obama first appeared onscreen, and no wonder; nine months into the Trump Era, it’s already a kick in the head to remember all the grown-ups that use to inhabit our government. It’s tough to know how the film would play if, as its participants seem to have expected, Clinton had won; as it is, it plays like a cross between tragedy and Twilight Zone, between Obama’s idealistic talk of “passing the baton” to a team that will “continue that agenda” and Powers hoping that their progress on Iran, Syria, and climate change “will be harder to dismantle in the event that we take a different turn.”

At 89 briskly-paced minutes, The Final Year skimps a bit on some topics, and has a tendency to portray POTUS 44 through rose-colored glasses – most obviously, the word “drones” isn’t uttered once (a particularly glaring omission when he visits Laos to condemn the “bombs that we dropped decades ago”). But it’s nonetheless a fascinating peek at how this stuff works, and if the outcome of its firmly-in-the-background election makes this one of TIFF’s more depressing pictures (which is saying something), Barker somehow finds an upbeat note to end on, with Rhodes insisting, based on the patterns of history, that “the pendulum will swing back.” Here’s hoping.



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