I’ve been going to the Toronto International Film Festival for decades. This was the first time as an official “senior citizen,” which perhaps explains why the marathon felt more exhausting than ever. While TIFF scaled back its bloated program, squeezing in 47 features still represented barely 18 per cent of the total on offer (not to mention shorts and other fest events). Movies, too, seem to be getting longer (many at or over the two-hour mark), and quite a few started late, upsetting crowded schedules. In the long mostly outdoor lineups for public screenings (at least no rain after day one) panhandlers commonly made the rounds. That doesn’t happen at the major U.S. festivals I go to, which makes me wonder about our supposedly kinder gentler country and who benefits from its fast-growing economy.
Before every public showing there’s six minutes of noisy video, mainly corporate promotion but including a fitting tribute to the late festival founder Bill Marshall. A welcome touch this year was that TIFF programmer introductions started with an acknowledgment of thanks to the “Mississaugas of the New Credit, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), and the Huron Wendat” as “the original keepers of this land ... and for hosting TIFF on their land every day.” Unfortunately the Canadian feature selection Indian Horse, based on the Richard Wagamese novel, was left out of the thick program book and so under the radar I only heard about it after.
TIFF has charitable status as an arts organization but also caters to the world of celebrity and corporate cachet. A lengthy investigative report published Sept. 20 in The Globe and Mail under the heading “Losing Focus” depicts a troubled enterprise.
What about the films? There’s the usual parade of high-profile Hollywood movies and star vehicles ramping up publicity before hitting the multiplex. Coming on the heels of the Venice and Telluride festivals, TIFF can’t count on world premiere bragging rights. Its hyped opening weekend, coinciding with the U.S. Open Tennis finals, had two racquet “galas”: Borg/McEnroe and Battle of the Sexes, the latter with Emma Stone as Billie Jean King.
Current releases include the period piece Victoria & Abdul from Stephen Frears about the relationship between the aging British monarch (Dame Judi Dench) and an Indian subject, and Mike White’s Brad’s Status about an insecure father (Ben Stiller) and his college-age son. Coming soon is George Clooney’s Suburbicon. I generally avoid these as the real discoveries lie elsewhere, but have seen a few already in theatres, as well as the dubious winner of TIFF’s “people’s choice” contest considered an augur of pre-Oscar favour. (Among the drama presentations, juried prizes are only offered in the edgy Platform section and for best Canadian features.)
By far the most far-out is Darren Aronofsky’s mother! starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as a nameless couple holed up in a remote ramshackle house under renovation. The older husband is a famous author and poet suffering from writer’s block when a strange dissembling couple intrudes (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) followed by a stranger, growing crowd as she is pregnant and he has published again. A crush of adoring fans goes on a frenzied rampage as she gives birth, leading to a horrifying fiery climax clearly intended to shock and appall.
The only wackier TIFF movie I’ve seen is Greek disruptor Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Ireland/U.K.), which takes the human comedy from pitch black to psychotic terrain. In it cardiologist Steven (Colin Farrell) befriends teenage loner Martin (Barry Keoghan) before finding out the boy blames him for the death of his father. Martin exacts a sacrificial penance concluding in a bizarre game of murderous roulette Steven plays with his terrified wife (Nicole Kidman) and small children who must also suffer for his sins. Like mother! there are some arresting moments before the storyline goes off the deep end of crazy. Fair warning.
On the inspirational true-story side is David Gordon Green’s Stronger, in which Jake Gyllenhaal portrays Jeff Bauman who lost his legs in the April 2013 Boston marathon terrorist bombing. The Boston bombing has already been the subject of the Mark Wahlberg drama Patriots Day and a 2016 HBO documentary Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing. Regina’s own Tatiana Maslany plays Bauman’s girlfriend Erin Hurley, who was among the runners.
The coveted “People’s Choice” nod went to Brit director Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which had been awarded best screenplay at Venice. McDonagh specializes in savage comedy on the dark side and this is no exception. At the centre is an aggrieved middle-aged woman, Mildred (the terrific Frances McDormand), in the fictional Ebbing (actually filmed in Sylva, North Carolina), who accuses its inept police department led by Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) of doing nothing to solve her daughter’s rape and murder. Fed up, she pays for three unused billboards to blare the messages: “Raped While Dying”; “And Still No Arrests?”; “How come Chief Willoughby?”
Mildred’s crusade is what holds it together. Willoughby puts himself out of his misery (while secretly helping her), replaced by an African American who fires the racist officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a mama’s boy doofus who gets burned when she resorts to firebombing the station but is willing to ride shotgun with her after the case gets a lead but stays unsolved.
I’m from Missouri on this one. McDormand, Harrelson and Rockwell chew the scenery to black comical effect but the side characters (Lucas Hedges as her son, Peter Dinklage as the village dwarf) don’t add much. The crude transgressive language and situations elicited lots of cheap laughs and applause from the Toronto audience. Wasn’t the pretext for all the motherly rage and mayhem a horrendous crime? Hardly a laughing matter, but then we learn almost nothing about it or the victim.
Turning to my best of TIFF, I’ll start with veteran Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, presented in the festival’s “Masters” section, which also premiered at Venice where it received an environmental “green drop” award. It would have been my choice for best screenplay too, one that is profoundly morally serious without a single swear word, truly exceptional in the current cinema.
Ethan Hawke gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the Reverend Toller, a 46-year-old former military chaplain who has been assigned as the pastor of the historic First Reformed church in upstate New York. The solitary Toller has turned to alcohol after losing a son in Iraq and the breakdown of his marriage. He starts writing a private journal to be destroyed after one year. He ministers to just a handful of parishioners while a nearby “Abundant Life” megachurch flush with corporate donations prepares for his “tourist” church’s 250th anniversary.
Toller is shaken when a pregnant young woman, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), seeks his help for her troubled husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), a radical environmental activist who, despairing of the fate of the earth, doesn’t want her to have the child. That is the setting for some extraordinary faith-testing conversations about humanity’s responsibility for the ills it has inflicted. Mary confides to Toller her worries about the extremes, which Michael is planning. Toller is torn and drawn in deeper, agonizing over the comfortable pew versus the cross of Christian witness. In reaching out to Mary perhaps he can find some light to relieve his dark night of the soul.
Schrader’s fierce demanding scenario draws on some cinematic classics, notably Robert Bresson’s The Diary of a Country Priest, to be expanded on in a future fuller review.
Two other veteran master directors at TIFF deserve mention. (I’ll highlight more top dramas in a next column.)
Austrian Michael Haneke who works in France was back at Cannes in May with Happy End (France/Austria/Germany), in part a sequel to Amour (2012), which won the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, the Oscar for best foreign-language film and many other awards.
The great Jean-Louis Trintignant reprises his role as the octogenarian phlegmatic patriarch Georges, wheelchair-bound with several Moroccan attendants. The incomparable Isabelle Huppert is back too as his icy daughter Anne who runs the Laurent business empire and is engaged to English lawyer (Toby Jones) handling a new deal. The setting is their luxurious seaside estate in Calais where the clan gathering includes her hapless son Pierre (Franz Rogowski), whose negligence has exposed the firm to serious civil liability for a construction-site fatality. Also present is her brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) with his 13-year-old daughter Eve (Fantine Harduin) from a previous marriage whose mother is hospitalized from a drug overdose and whose use of digital social media skills help frame this as a very contemporary exercise in familial sociopathy and self-absorption. George’s private talk with Eve of final wishes and no regrets prefigures an ironically perfect wedding-scene ending.
Danish director Bille August, also a two-time Palme d’Or winner, brought the world premiere of an American true story in 55 Steps whose heroine, Eleanor Riese (Helena Bonham Carter), diagnozed with schizophrenia, was subjected to treatments against her will in the psychiatric ward of San Francisco’s St. Mary’s Hospital. Amazingly this German/Belgium co-production was mostly shot in Cologne. A devout Catholic who lived with her mother and whose best friend was an elderly nun, Eleanor made rosaries and was deeply attached to the Blessed Virgin. In the 1980s she developed a remarkable relationship with a lapsed Catholic lawyer, Colette Hughes (Hilary Swank), who took on her case as an advocate for the rights of mental patients to informed consent. Backed by her mentor and senior counsel Mort Cohen (Jeffrey Tambor), Hughes waged an uphill battle at considerable personal cost against the medical and legal establishments, achieving an ultimately successful ruling on appeal that was upheld in the California courts.
Bonham Carter and Swank are superb in the roles. At a critical juncture Colette appeals to a higher power: “I’m out of practice praying but I know You are not out of practice listening.” And although Eleanor, whose favourite expression was “Tell me I’m not right” didn’t live long after the landmark decision, her dogged faith made a lasting difference for hundreds of thousands of patients.