Piers Marchant at Sundance 2021: Day 4February 1, 2021
Best Film of the Day(s): Mass
Mass: Predictably, Fran Kranz’ film opens with a shot of a church, but the title turns out to be a reverberating double entendre — both the religious service towards forgiveness; and a term commonly used in conjunction with a multiple-homicide shooting event. The church, Episcopal it turns out, is the agreed-to meeting place for two sets of grieving parents: Gail (Martha Plimpton) and Jay (Jason Isaacs), whose teen son Evan was killed some years before in a high-school massacre; and Linda (Ann Down) and Richard (Reed Birney), whose son, Haden, was the shooter, before killing himself in the school library. They have agreed to meet, long after the lawsuits and legal wrangling have been settled, to possibly provide answers and solace to one another. As can be expected, the atmosphere is fraught with tension — a setting Kranz, an actor making his directorial and writing debut, expertly mines before the couples arrive, with a kind but overenthusiastic church administrator (Breeda Wool), fretting about the details of the food arrangement — and the couples, wary, at first, of letting things get hostile, work diligently to avoid disagreement by staying mild (an arrangement of flowers Linda brings is speculated upon a great deal). Eventually, however, the four wounded parents get down to more brass tacks, Gail and Jay eschewing their therapist’s call for them to avoid “interrogation” questions, to get at the root of what they are after. In truth, as Kranz has the characters cannily come to understand, there are no details that shed new light, no explanations that help rectify what they’ve lost, only a grim understanding that, as parents, they are all subject to the laws of chaos and chance. Unsurprisingly, Kranz has an actorly sense of conflict and explication, but, despite the limited setting (this could easily have been an adapted play), he gives his actors plenty of room with which to work, and the quartet are more than up to the task. They are each terrific, and given opportunity to shine, but it’s Plimpton’s monologue near the end about her son that becomes the film’s singular tour-de-force moment, a scene with so many hooks and edges, it sticks to you like velcro. Kranz is careful not to overstep his dramatic boundaries, difficult given the potentially melodramatic elements of the story, and allows his actors enough time to breathe so it avoids feeling polemic or preachy (an early scene with Gail and Jay in the car before they arrive is a scintillating bit of set-up, where words are spoken, but our attention, like that of the characters, is entirely elsewhere). No easy answers, thankfully, just brutal realizations that can’t be avoided.
A Glitch in the Matrix: By this time, documentary filmmaker Rodney Ascher has carved out a sort of niche for himself: As with Room 237, and The Nightmare, he has gathered up fringe thinkers displaying a sort of group psychosis in order to explore other ways of seeing, and interpreting, our world. His docs don’t come down on either side of a given conundrum — are any of the far-out, would-be explanations of The Shining in 237 the least bit sensible? Is it possible in The Nightmare for people experiencing the horror of sleep paralysis to share in the same horrific vision? — but he carefully doesn’t contradict any of his subjects either. His new film, an exploration of what’s known as “simulation theory,” concerns a pattern of thought described back in 1977 by the heavily adapted science fiction author Philip K. Dick during an appearance in France, suggesting, Matrix-style, that all that we think we see and know is actually an intricate virtual reality, brought to us by an unseen technological force. True to his form, Ascher interviews numerous applicants to the theory — many of whom portrayed by VR avatars in their own homes — including scholars, practitioners, and skeptics, and bolstering their arguments with an assortment of other media, from Minecraft, Philip K. Dick-based films, and crude computer animations, to video games, and youtube videos. The views are intentionally conflictive — one subject suggests the very idea of such conflict is the basis of the simulation — and anything but conclusive, but, of course, that’s the very point. Less unsettling than The Nightmare, one of the few true horror movies of the documentary genre I’ve ever seen, save for the account of Joshua Cooke, who pled guilty to killing his parents in cold blood after cementing his belief that the ideas portrayed in The Matrix were completely real. Listening to his step-by-step description, from prison, of his descent into madness, and where those impulses took him, is to drop into first-person shooter psychosis.
Coming Home in the Dark: Both Australia and New Zealand are blessed with spectacularly beautiful land that is filled with wide-open, terrifying vast spaces in which any amount of evil may lurk. In dark, violent films like Wolf Creek and Killing Ground, all that beauty and space is turned on its head by far more chaotic inclinations, rendering brutally effective, and stomach-churning sadism as a means of displaying the horrible duality of the land. Kiwi director James Ashcroft attempts to add to this cinematic legacy with this film, a murder-abduction sort of thriller, in which a family on a camping trip in the wilds, is brutalized by a pair of killers they come across. In a twist that at least one of the killers, Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) would have us believe is a coincidence, it turns out the patriarch of the family, Alan (Erik Thompson), used to teach at the abusive orphanage school in which both Mandrake, and his partner, Tubbs (Matthias Luafutu) suffered as children. It’s not a believable conceit, which Ashcroft seems to readily admit, but because it makes the connection, the film attempts to work as a kind of metaphor for the violence which we didn’t perpetrate, but also did nothing to stop. Mandrake as an avenging angel, foisting Alan’s lack of empathy back onto him in violent spades. It’s difficult to fault a film for not being transgressive and shocking enough, exactly, but despite the theatrics of the situation, and Mandrake’s coldly comic engaging of the couple in “regular conversation,” it doesn’t have the heart to be as effective and unsettling as it needs to be. It plays it too safe, which saves the audience from being plunged into the all-too-realistic terror of, say, Killing Ground, but also dilutes the stronger point it wants to make about systemic brutality.
The Blazing World: Related to the 17th Century Margaret Cavendish novel in basic concept, Carlson Young’s feature debut walks a wobbly line between linear narrative, and neo-gothic opera — only with a soundtrack instead of singing. The story concerns a young woman, Margaret (Carlson), who loses her twin sister to a drowning accident as a child, but has imagined ever since that her sister lives in some alternate vortex of reality, heralded by a grinning demon, Leonid (Udo Kier, of course). Coming back to her childhood home before her battling parents (Dermot Mulroney and Vinessa Shaw) move out altogether, Margaret meets some old friends, does some drugs, and finally enters the fantasia-like world that Leonid has been beckoning her to for most of her life in order to find her trapped sister. There, she must amass a series of keys, plucking them from demon versions of her parents, and confront her own guilt and pain in order to unlock her twin and set everyone free. It would be easy to say Young’s reach far exceeds her grasp, but the fact that she was willing to attempt such an audacious project says something about her artistic chops. And for every moment that hits wrong, there are several more that work in interesting ways. Her aforementioned use of music, and sound design invokes a kind of Kubrickian aesthetic, and her commitment to her vision is palpable. This likely won’t be the best film she ever makes, but it does portend to a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on, going forward.
Sundance goes mostly virtual for this year’s edition, sparing filmgoers the altitude, long waits, standing lines, and panicked eating binges — but also, these things and more that make the festival so damn endearing. In any event, Sundance via living room is still a hell of a lot better than no Sundance. A daily report.