An enjoyable (and frequently noted) side effect of unhinging one’s brain-jaw and inhaling movies like you’re No-Face in Spirited Away is that, whether you intentionally set out to do so or not, you begin to notice certain patterns—in themes, in plots, in lighting schemes, in soundtrack choices. These can be profound reflections of the dreams and anxieties of the collective unconscious, or they can simply be amusing coincidences. One example of the latter is the number of films at this year’s TIFF whose scores could double as tracks on a Pure Moods compilation, like the lovely but undoubtedly New Age-y music pianist Ludovico Einaudi brings to Nomadland, or the Sigur Ros needle drop at a pivotal moment in Pieces Of A Woman.
Other connections are more aesthetically tenuous, but politically illuminating: Take the wildly different takes on the deteriorating American social safety net offered up by Zhao’s film and by I Care A Lot (Grade: B). As is her artistic wont, Zhao’s take on how the system is failing America’s elders is fueled by a bone-deep humanism and boundless compassion for those left behind. On the other hand, I Care A Lot writer-director J. Blakeson sees the plight of senior citizens ground beneath the wheels of bureaucracy as the jumping-off point for a black comedy of escalating aggression. The result is something one could facetiously, but accurately describe as I Love You Phillip Morris crossed with I Saw The Devil, with a little The Psychopath Test for added flavor.
Rosamund Pike stars as Marla Grayson, a con artist and stone-cold sociopath who reins over what she thinks is the perfect scam: A professional guardianship service that specializes in watching over elderly people left in the care of the state. If you’re thinking, “but that sounds nice, actually,” that’s the point: Under the angelic cover of social work, Marla and her business/life partner Fran (Eiza Gonzalez) are bleeding their clients dry like vampires in tailored pantsuits. A legal guardian also has control of their ward’s assets, you see, and Marla and Fran’s game is to pay a corrupt doctor (Alicia Witt) to declare someone mentally incompetent and scuttle them off to a prison-like nursing facility before any distant relatives notice what’s happening. And if the person objects to Marla and Fran selling their house and draining their bank account? They’re not fit to make their own decisions. It’s right there on their chart.
What Marla has not accounted for, however, is the possibility that there are people out there just as ruthless as she is, and some of them love their mothers. That’s the short version of what happens when this immovable object meets the unstoppable force that is Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), prompting a game of one upsmanship that escalates to deliriously violent levels. (The best part is, they’re both terrible people, so you don’t have to feel bad chuckling at their cruelty to one another.) That being said, the most shocking part of the film is early on, in the brisk montage laying out the exact mechanics of Marla and Fran’s con. It’s kidnapping and robbery under the guise of compassion, and Blakeson makes a point of commenting on how American society not only creates Marlas, it rewards them. The film is arguably too long, with a mushy middle section that slows the momentum of its savage first third. But Pike’s performance remains sharp as her character’s blonde bob throughout, and the pleasures of watching her and Dinklage face off are significant.
Believe it or not, I Care A Lot is based on an actual phenomenon, as is Ricky Staub’s feature debut Concrete Cowboy (B). Of course, one’s awareness of the phenomena dramatized in these two movies may vary; arguably, the popularity of Lil Nas X and the “Yeehaw Agenda” has hipped more outsiders to Black cowboys and cowgirls in the past two years than in the previous decade combined. (If you’re in Chicago, you may have even seen Adam Hollingsworth, a.k.a. the Dreadhead Cowboy, trotting around.) That being said, the tradition of Black equestrianship goes back much farther than that, with historians now estimating that 25% of Old West cowboys were Black. Concrete Cowboy continues the mission of bringing this storied subculture into the mainstream, casting Idris Elba as the unofficial leader of a group of Black urban riders and Stranger Things’ Caleb McLaughlin as his estranged son.
As the story begins, 15-year-old Cole (McLaughlin) is sent by his mother from Detroit to Philadelphia to spend the summer with his dad—and get away from the bad influences that led to his expulsion from school. Cole and Harp (Elba) barely know each other, and Harp seems more interested in taking care of his horse—who, in one of the film’s more surreal details, lives in the living room of Harp’s weathered row house—than his teenage son. The sight of Harp and his friends riding horses through the streets of North Philly is irresistible, however, even to a sullen adolescent. And so Cole begins his apprenticeship at the Fletcher Street Stables, home of the riding club whose real-life members make up much of the film’s supporting cast.
Staub’s intentions with Concrete Cowboy are clearly to uplift and pay tribute to the Fletcher Street Riders, a handful of whom also appear in the end credits. Staub and cinematographer Minka Farthing-Kohl film the riders and their environment under soft, lustrous light, each street lamp a glowing beacon and each puff of dust a magic powder. Aside from the equestrian element, however, the storyline is clichéd coming-of-age fare for films about Black urban youth, complete with a subplot about a childhood friend of Cole’s who’s been seduced by the drug trade. What ultimately pulls Concrete Cowboy out of that trap is not only the intriguing characters, but also its earnest belief in the steadying power of the bond between humans and animals, as well as the value of legacy and community in giving our lives meaning. So yeah, it’s a little corny at times, but it looks good and has heart—and, let’s be honest, Black cowboys are pretty damn cool.