Piers Marchant at Sundance: Day Four

January 23, 2017

Sundance: Day 4

Number of Films: 4
Vibe: Transfixed

Wind River: Taylor Sheridan has been on a hell of a roll since the one-time actor got his first screenplay, Sicario, made into a pretty gripping film. Last summer’s unexpected hit, Hell or High Water, only added to his ascendency. Presumably, this film, which he wrote and also, for the first time, directed, will only increase his luster. Jeremy Renner plays a professional hunter for the Fish and Wildlife Service, out in the frigid climbs of Wyoming, looking to protect livestock threatened by predators. When he discovers the dead body of a young woman out in the wilderness, however, it sparks an investigation, bringing a callow young FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) to make the case. Sheridan has a way of taking these sorts of genres – murders on reservation lands have long been a stock trope for Hollywood – and adding enough depth and detail to make them seem fresh. Not content with a simple murder mystery, he adds layers of complexity, including the confusing laws of jurisdiction on Native American reservations, and the inherent difficulty of living in such blindingly cold and inhospitable environments. After this and Sicario, which saw the rough education of another inexperienced female agent, he might want to lay off that particular dynamic, but what he does have is a very strong sense of place, which roots the action very much in what feels close to realism. One character disparagingly describes the area as “snow and silence,” and Sheridan seems to embrace both in equal measure.

A Ghost Story: Cinematic poems take enormous risks with their audience. The payoff can be extremely powerful, but a wrong, misguided move becomes almost unbearably tedious. David Lowery’s film – a kind of meditation on love, mortality, and time – works in part because of the richness of his composition, but also because, despite its deliberate pace, it’s emotionally resonate in ways that are fittingly haunting. This isn’t a plot driven film: Essentially we have a young, happy couple (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara), living in a small rancher. When the husband dies, he becomes a ghost – classic form, with the white sheet and eye holes – and silently chooses not to leave but to stay and watch the aftermath of his passing. It’s a film of felt, quiet spaces, whose emotional intensity builds in small increments to become at times almost overwhelming. It goes places you don’t expect, and keeps you there, frozen stiff in your chair, as it comes full circle. It’s definitely not a film for everybody – if, for example, you require three full acts and complete character arcs, you might want to take a flyer – but for the people who can hang with it, it has an enormous amount to offer.

Raw: An infamous sensation at TIFF, leaving a stream of theater-goers, Exorcist-like, fleeing the theater to throw up in the nearest garbage cans, it turns out to be far more visually interesting than anything else. We follow the journey of decadent carnivorousness with Justine (Garance Marillier), a young, extremely bright vegetarian, following her parents’ footsteps and attending veterinary school. During a particularly brutal hazing ritual (and who knew French vet school was closer to Phi Beta Kappa than a medical institution?), Justine is induced by her older sister to eat raw liver. Soon, she’s developing both a bad body rash and an increasing appetite for anything made of flesh. At first, she confines herself to standard items, but as she grows increasingly wild and disheveled, she turns to craving the flesh of her fellow students. Throughout, director Julia Ducournau, making her feature debut, sticks in enough scenes of stomach churning gore (including the unforgettable scene when Justine first gives way to her desires), to guarantee its reputation, but there’s not much else to hinge itself upon. I can’t say I argue with its politics, at this point, I’ve been a vegetarian for better than four decades, but its execution didn’t do much to move me. At the end, I did leave the theater, not to expel my Kind bar, just underwhelmed.

Tomorrow: I can catch my breath for a minute or two before catching Philly’s Alex Ross Perry’s latest venture, Golden Exits; then, I head into graphic novel territory with Wilson, based on the book by the great Daniel Clowes; from there, I finally get to see a documentary, this one concerning Oakland’s beleaguered police force, appropriately enough named The Force; and to close out my Monday, I plan on taking a gander at one of the early buzzed-about films of the festival, Bushwick. *Note* Or, as likely, I’ll do some or none of these – this is the point in the festival when your carefully manicured schedule crumbles to dust.

Photo from A Ghost Story

Into the frigid climes and rarefied thin air of the spectacular Utah Mountains, I’ve arrived in order to document some of the sense and senselessness of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Over the next week, armed with little more than a heavy parka and a bevy of blank reporter’s notebooks, I’ll endeavor to watch as many movies as I can and report my findings.


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