By Jacob Mertens.
The road sweeps before me, and I watch snowcapped mountains peer through the dark like ghosts. They tower above, catch the faint light of sunrise, and I would be in awe if I were not so paranoid that any moment a truck could smash into me, obliterating my shoebox-sized rental car. Yes, Enterprise’s “economy vehicle” can barely fit me alone, and it refuses to climb up these mountains without my insistent foot slamming on the gas. I curse as other cars pass me, going faster than I feel comfortable on an unending chain of twists and turns, an interstate etched out of the terrain with all the artfulness of a child’s etch-a-sketch drawing. No matter though, because the road soon levels out, the sun rises through the hills, the sky expands blue and deep, and a cozy mountain town lies at the foot of the road. Park City, home to one of the venerated Meccas of film, awaits. And for those suffering from the bitter cold of January, somewhere in Sundance headquarters there is hot apple cider mixed with rum waiting to warm you.
Renewal in the New Year: Follow-ups and Follow-downs
The year 2013 marks an auspicious line up for the Sundance Film Festival, listing several important directorial follow-ups to the likes of Take Shelter (2011), Primer (2004), Smashed (2012), and Like Crazy (2011). All these past works offered something exciting, either as first films heralding more to come or breakthrough efforts refusing to escape notice. Among these anticipated returns to cinema, Shane Carruth’s new film Upstream Color has to be the most intriguing of the lot. Emerging from a nine year hiatus after Primer claimed Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize, Carruth’s Upstream Color finds the director in far more experimental territory. Essentially, his film revolves around the romance of Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Shane Carruth), whose lives and minds have been irreparably harmed after exposure to a psychotropic parasite. Without any knowledge of what has happened to them, they find each other and take refuge in a life together, while slowly drawing closer to the mystery of their affliction. I will admit that Upstream Color is undoubtedly abstract, quiet throughout, and may be too introspective for a mainstream audience to appreciate. However, those willing to give their time will find the film rewards their diligence. Carruth, acting as director and cinematographer, crafts each scene with a grave attention to beauty. Meanwhile, the performances hone in on a constant state of anxiety, weathered by tenderness and care. Upstream Color rises from the festival program as a work of surreal art worthy of David Lynch, only with a more distinct poetic aesthetic. And for a festival scant on the avant-garde, the diffused narrative delivers a welcome diversion from the norm.
Moving on to Jeff Nichols, we find a filmmaker tasked with somehow matching his tour de force Take Shelter a year after its release. Faced with such an impossible feat, it is perhaps no wonder that his new film shares with Shelter a performance from Michael Shannon and little else. Mud wisely takes a sharp left turn in the director’s oeuvre, detailing a coming of age story wrapped up tight in twangy southern mythos. Matthew McConaughey plays the titular lead, a fugitive who seeks the help of two teenage boys to reunite him with his estranged love and outlast a rabid pack of bounty hunters after his life. It is a brilliant set up, to be sure, and the characters come across well on screen. Unfortunately, the film runs a bit long, and McConaughey’s Mud feels needlessly mythologized as a man of no parentage, who comes “from the woods.” I imagine Nichols meant to make Mud a mysterious presence, but the film’s allusions to this quality strain. As a result, you walk away from the character feeling like you have been deprived of something.
Another agreeable let down this year can be found in James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now. After wowing 2012 Sundance audiences with Smashed, a depiction of alcoholism and redemption as seen through a couple’s marriage, Ponsoldt now explores similar themes within the framework of a high school comedy. In truth, Spectacular Now makes a far better go of it than one might think, but still suffers from an inability to express the gravity a seventeen-year-old alcoholic demands. I admire the director’s attempts to balance levity with the plight of addiction, but his film cannot sustain the effort. In the end, you cannot be both Pretty in Pink (1986) and Leaving Las Vegas (1995), you must choose one or the other.
In contrast to Spectacular Now‘s diminished returns, Drake Doremus shows significant growth with his latest feature Breathe In. Following Like Crazy, a fragmented piece on love equal parts poignant and erratic, Doremus takes on a domestic drama in which Guy Pierce plays Keith, a family man who is, unbeknownst to all, desperately unhappy. When a foreign exchange student named Sophie (Felicity Jones) comes to stay at his house, she is the only one observant enough to see his despondence. The two soon bond through a common love of music, and begin a timorous romance that threatens to destroy Keith’s home. As the tension in the film builds, Doremus guides the story with a steady hand, relishing in uncomfortable situations. This impulse is then tempered by Felicity Jones’ sensitive portrayal. Her character’s maturity and grace seem to defy the ingrained social anathema at work in the film: the differences of age, the infidelity. Consequently, their romance takes on a somber note, with both characters wishing to escape from their lives together, heedless of the wreckage they would leave behind.
Zeitgeist is a Four Letter Word
In addition to prominent returns, new films strike the forge attempting to capture the essence of the times. Without fail, the current social landscape gives fertile ground for these films to enrage and enervate, to kindle some hope for change, or simply to revel in the chaos. In the documentary God Loves Uganda, Roger Ross Williams constructs a bitter critique of the missionary movement in Uganda, in which espoused conservative Christian ideologies have taken root in the nation to ill effect. Williams’ treatise focuses principally on the church’s repressed attitude toward sexuality, leading to a rash of homophobia in Uganda that has caused the death of innocent lives. Additionally, there has been a proposed piece of legislation that would give the government power to jail and kill homosexuals without restrictions, legislation that still waits to become a law today. Williams’ film does not work hard to make the audience angry, and it does not shy from the prospective that there is right and wrong at hand. And who could argue otherwise? In Uganda, evangelicals find fertile ground to work with and their extremist agendas take on the cruel edge of application. It is an elegant reminder that while these tirades are often confined to words alone here in the states, and may seem harmless, these words still hold an incredible amount of power. If viewers take nothing else from the film, they should at least see that if preachers sermonize hate, their congregation may just take that hate and run with it.
Moving on to an altogether different homosexuality film, Stacie Passon’s Concussion offers audiences a subtle drama involving lesbian housewife Abbie (Robin Weigert) who, after suffering a blow to the head, awakens to an insatiable sexual revival. Unfortunately, these new feelings change little in her life. At home, Abbie has two children who sap her energy and a wife who lacks intimacy. Feeling unfulfilled and without a way to satisfy her urges, she begins a secret life as a call girl. Abbie clings to her new occupation with an emotional fervor unbecoming of the job. She meets each client for coffee, confirming her desire to be with them, then subsequently forms attachments and treats each paid tryst as a microcosmic relationship. Through her clients, Abbie finds the bliss of passion missing in her own life. However, these personal connections are fraught with misunderstandings and surface emotions, and a burgeoning sense of calm soon leaves her. Using the concussion throughout, in brief cutaways of Abbie pounding back aspirin, Passon reminds the audience that this new life is a symptom of something sinister. Whether that be a product of the claustrophobic environment of domesticity, or simply an unfortunate effect of the concussion itself, remains for viewers to judge.
Family life finds a much more delicate portrayal with A River Changes Course. In Kalyanee Mam’s documentary, viewers follow the plight of several families in Cambodia, all struggling with increasing debt and economic burden. Each family has grown close, simply by weathering hardships together, but soon the parents must send their children off to find work. Sidestepping the obvious differences of fiction and nonfiction, the contrast between this depiction of family and that found in Passon’s Concussion is compelling, because it seems to suggest that affluence helps to foster distance. However, in A River, the want for affluence eventually drives the family apart as well. In the film, children who leave their families looking for work all desire to return to the simpler life of their village. Instead, they sacrifice their place at home, knowing that poverty lies in wait to destroy their family. Mam’s documentary takes on a vérité style so enthralling and well photographed that, barring a few simple revisions, the film could play as a minimalist narrative. The success of the film, however, predominately lies in its ability to show a life that lies out of reach for the children of Cambodia. Their land lies barren from deforestation and over-fishing, and an education seems pointless when faced with securing the well-being of their families. Faced with these overwhelming challenges, Mam’s documentary gently suggests that the growing poverty in Cambodia demands from children not only their homes but their future.
If directors designed these films, in some way or another, as a sober consideration of the state of our lives, then Park Chan Wook’s Stoker gives us the glorious antitheses. The Korean auteur, best known for his vengeance trilogy, makes his first foray into Hollywood with a film steeped in an all too real culture of violence and dissociation. India (Mia Wasikowska) plays the daughter of a recently deceased father, who must now share her home with an estranged mother and an uncle she never knew existed. Under the pretext of mourning, India shares the space of the film in disunity with all around her. As time goes on though, India begins to suspect her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) of murder. Far from aggravating the distance maintained between them, intrigue brings her closer. From this point, Park chooses to delight in the immoral bedlam of his film rather than admonish it. He brings his characters together through vice, either violence or lust, and allows one emotional extreme to naturally lead into the other. With a practiced touch, Park renders Stoker an engrossing thriller with all the hallmarks of a demented Alfred Hitchcock. The film may savor its mysteries a little too much, leaving a final reveal that feels unmoving, but the style of the film remains inventive and the unabashed moral perversion a satisfying act of defiance.
The Reigning Champs of Sundance
Beyond all the trends to surface at this year’s Sundance, the most consistent was a fleeting glimpse of greatness. Truthfully, I cannot pretend to be the end all source for naming the best at Sundance, not when so many great films escaped my notice. However, I would be remiss if I did not uphold my favorites in their own category. To begin with, Richard Linklater marks his return to the much beloved Before Sunrise series with the trilogy-forging Before Midnight, a film that both revels in its history and completely disregards it. For those unfamiliar with the series, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset focus on the budding romance of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), as seen through one day fragments separated by nine years of time. Faced with another nine year gap, Midnight obliterates the entrenched nostalgia of its storied past, as the couple struggles to remain together and hold on to their love with desperate life. Written by Linklater and his two lead actors, Midnight mires Jesse and Celine in an argument that lasts nearly half the film’s runtime, drudging through a past that viewers learn of as a distant memory. Without giving too many details, I will say that I have never seen a film so accurately capture the tenor of an argument. For this fact alone, Before Midnight offers not only one of the standout films of the festival, but one of the most memorable films I have ever seen.
Following a film prone to dialogue is the artfully spare Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. David Lowery’s slow burn western dwells on the story of outlaw Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and his wife Ruth (Rooney Mara), a couple separated by Muldoon’s imprisonment. After several attempts to escape, Muldoon finally succeeds in shedding his captivity. Now, hell bent on reuniting with his wife and their daughter, a child he has never seen, Muldoon must avoid capture long enough to steal away with his family. The film takes its time to build to their reunion, slowly integrating the presence of a mob that, for reasons unknown, wish to kill Muldoon before he reaches home. In truth, this is a simple story, given grace and vulnerability by Ruth’s own side in it. If Muldoon’s motives are unyielding and clear, Ruth’s are clouded by the fear that Muldoon will get himself killed by returning. She also must weigh her desire to see him again with a need to feel her daughter is safe, and so she begins to doubt whether a reunion should take place at all. The film is paced with impeccable care, the threat of conflict broods in the background, and when characters speak they do so as if they have given their words a great deal of thought. In short, the film succeeds in telling a story that surpasses its genre, emulating instead a folk song or fable worthy of its own enigmatic title.
Finally, Stories We Tell stands out as a documentary reconstructing the life and memory of director Sarah Polley’s mother. Polley interviews family and friends, attempting to honor a life through the varying accounts of those who knew her. Polley intends to discover the truth of her mother, a woman she barely knew, by focusing on the differences within the stories told. However, most accounts do not stray far from the other and so her initial proposal seems moot. Polley remains ardent that this is what her film is meant to be, an austere examination on the tenuous nature of memory, romanticizing and obscuring those now lost to us. Thankfully, her film takes on a will of its own, and instead becomes a means for Polley to examine the bonds between her and her family, as shaped by her mother’s passing. Despite clinging to a failed thesis for far too long, Polley’s film thrives. She shares a natural rapport with those on camera, and each interviewee imparts to the film the warmth and good humor of their recollections. In Stories We Tell, the memory of a loved one does not succumb to the ebb of time, all at once revealing a shadow without substance. No, the memory ascends triumphant, because it is shared within the family and is given life by their retelling. This is the power of Polley’s film, a power she effortlessly evokes because she does so by accident.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.