With an evening slot open, I try my luck with Downriver (Grade: C+), an inchoate mystery set around an Australian trailer park with a higher-than-average population of very good-looking young gay men. (Note scribbled during screening and underlined: “Direct-to-video Stranger By The Lake: water, sex, death.”) There’s an epileptic man with a keloid scar on his cheek who was convicted of murder when he was 9—victim being a younger kid, body never found—and he’s going around trying to figure out who really did it. For a while, he seems convinced that it was dingoes, though it probably has something to do with his childhood best friend, who is blackmailing the owner of a local coffee shop for free lattes and once made a local boy cut off his penis.
Admittedly, this all sounds pretty cool, and there’s an intrinsic curiosity factor to the movie’s lack of interest in explaining the basic terms of the mystery or what might constitute a clue, and to its blasé approach to very lurid subject matter, which is left mostly off screen in favor of shots of people staring. (Also, the film deserves some kind of award for featuring the slurpiest blowjob sound effects ever dreamt up in a Foley studio.) There are shades of The Vanishing, mostly because writer-director Grant Scicluna shadows everything with the question of how far the guy with the keloid scar—called James, and played by the fantastically named Reef Ireland—will go to find out what really happened. But for the large part, this is a murk of capital-T themes and lingering compositions.
Black Mass (Grade: B-) is basically a vampire movie. Johnny Depp plays Boston gangster Whitey Bulger as a sexualized kabuki Nosferatu with an impossibly angular hairline, pale blue contacts, and skin like dried Elmer’s Glue, and he spends most of the movie cruising around in ass-hugging flared jeans and a tight leather jacket with an upturned collar, putting his fingers around people’s throats. (Cue shots of Bulger in a Miami night club, animal eyes flashing under the strobe light.) Like a lot of vampire movies, Black Mass is mostly about the allure of sinister power, which is also where it stumbles, because the dry who-whacked-whom structure of Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth’s screenplay makes no room for seduction, ensuring that none of the characters has a dramatic arc.
As in Out Of The Furnace, director Scott Cooper musters some genuinely interesting sequences, the most outrageous and overtly supernatural one being the scene in which Bulger arrives at a woman’s bedroom door while she’s reading The Exorcist and lingers in the doorway. (Remember: They won’t come in unless invited.) Depp’s characterization is typically obscure, all cadaverous stare and silent-movie cheekbones underlined by dabs of dark makeup. The other characters function as prey within the movie’s trap-style approach to scene construction, with the viewer perpetually waiting for the moment when Bulger strikes; a typical scene starts banal—a car, a dinner, a new home—and builds until someone either gets strangled or shot in the back of head, or until Bulger just laughs, his crooked yellowish teeth recalling fangs.
Speaking of supernatural undertones, individually interesting sequences, and things that are basically other things: Sylvia Chang’s latest directorial effort, Murmur Of The Hearts (Grade: B), presents its characters’ memories of their parents as ghost stories. Though best known as an actor (she’s in two movies here: Johnnie To’s Office, which she also co-wrote, and Jia Zhang-ke’s Mountains May Depart), the Taiwanese-born Chang has been writing and directing movies since the early ’80s, and this fluid-but-conventional drama is the kind of movie that’s carried mostly on the strength of its grace notes.
There’s a pregnant young woman, her boxer boyfriend, and a brother she hasn’t seen his childhood, and the end goal is to bring them all together in a room, though the question of how they get there is less interesting than the stops along the way, be it a dream sequence that moves like a supernatural visitation in an Apichatpong Weerasethakul movie, or a sex scene framed through a wall of etched glass, the square pattern of the surfaces breaking up the bodies into pixels. More subtly affecting: A sequence in which the aforementioned boxer boyfriend, having smashed his coach’s display case in an argument, returns to the gym to clean it up, gathering the shards into a dust pan and then carefully wrapping the glass in newspaper before taking it out to the trash.
Before hopping into a cab to get to the red carpet screening of Black Mass at the Elgin (pronounced with a hard g, unlike the Chicago suburb), I spend a little over an hour in the more modest confines of Jackman Hall, catching a Wavelengths experimental shorts program—the fourth one, subtitled “Psychic Driving.” The two pieces I end up digging the most are Samuel L. Delgado and Helena Girón’s “Neither God Nor Santa Maria” (Grade: B+) and Daïchi Saïto’s “Engram Of Returning” (Grade: B). Saïto’s thing is grainy, abstracted natural imagery flashing to dervish-like whirls of music (you can see his earlier Trees Of Syntax, Leaves Of Axis here), and his program-closer ends up hitting the spot for me, in part because I a) have a thing for repetitive saxophone figures and b) can’t help but admire a movie in anamorphic 35mm that consists in large part of black screen.
The Delgado and Girón film is all about texture and witchcraft; a hissy soundtrack of interviews—recorded by an ethnographer in the Canary Islands in the mid-1960s —recounts absurd and outlandish tales of local witches, while, on the screen, the water-damage-like splotches of hand-processed, expired 16mm film dance over barely legible landscapes and scenes of a modern-day witch picking herbs. (You can watch some excerpts here.) The title short, William E. Jones’ “Psychic Driving” (Grade: C), works a similar vein, though nowhere near as artfully; it’s a 1979 ABC News segment about CIA-backed LSD experiments, presented uncut, with the sound unaltered, but the image deformed into bands of colored video static. As for the rest of the short program: I find myself liking Philippe Garrel’s formerly-long-lost 1968 short “Actua 1” (Grade: bumped up to B) way more than I did when I saw it at Cannes, and have no worthwhile thoughts about the other films.
Biggest surprises of TIFF so far: That Terence Davies’ Sunset Song (Grade: C) isn’t very good, and that Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise (Grade: B+) is something I genuinely dig. Wheatley’s labyrinthine black comedy preserves the 1970s setting of J.G. Ballard’s novel, linking its vision of a residential tower regressing into literal class warfare to the rise of Margaret Thatcher, but aside from these jabs of political commentary, it’s a movie of largely disorganized directorial decisions and unmotivated stylistic tics, with the only connective tissue being the game cast and super-arch dialogue. (“She said your tenancy application was very Byronic,” “I’m a Modernist by trade,” “It looks like the unconscious diagram of a psychic event,” etc., etc.)
In other words, it’s another Wheatley whatsit, but here the director’s refusal to do anything that might suggest perspective or point of view or any sense of identification provides a formal counterpart to Ballard’s story of an alienated society fracturing under absurd circumstances. Opening with a recreation of the novel’s notorious opening sentence (“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog…”), High-Rise tracks new move-in/middle-class stand-in Laing (Tom Hiddleston) and an assortment of other residents—the men all known by their surnames, the women by their first names—as their apartment building devolves into a garbage-barricaded, Mad Max-esque wasteland of rapists and raiding parties following a couple of power failures, some arguments over pool usage, and a problem with the trash chute.
Wheatley’s grab-bag approach mixes 1970s kitsch (an orchestral cover of ABBA’s “S.O.S.”; signs in Eurostile Bold Extended, the go-to futuristic typeface of ’70s sci-fi) with psychotic violence, and absurdly dry line readings (“He’s raping people he’s not supposed to and, to top it all off, he shat in Mercer’s attaché case”) with oblique camera angles. In terms of formal poles, that makes it the exact opposite of Sunset Song, Terence Davies’ stultifying exercise in studious classicism. A poor relation to Davies’ earlier, superb adaptations (The Neon Bible, The House Of Mirth, The Deep Blue Sea), the eccentric English filmmaker’s long-in-the-works big-screen take on Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1933 novel sticks closely to the source material’s plotting and early 20th century political talking points (pacifism, socialism, Scots identity), but never wrings much out of them. Instead, they hang like wet laundry on a wind-less day.
Shooting in a combination of digital (for the interiors) and 70mm (for the outdoor scenes), Davies frames Gibbon’s heroine, Chris Guthrie (former it-girl model Agyness Deyn), against drab farmhouse walls and muddy countrysides, everything suggesting limbo-ish stasis. The deaths come as regularly as the visits from what appears to be world’s worst country doctor, life being—in quintessential Davies fashion—not much more than a series of lost times. But in lieu of the ghostly elliptical structuring style that’s long been the director’s signature, with scenes entered like memories, Sunset Song opts for the completely straightforward. The result is shockingly boring in stretches; even Davies’ use of music—usually sublime or close to it—is largely uninspired here, with shots of swaying wheat soundtracked by cheesily produced Scottish folk songs.