Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2017, Day 9

JourneymanThe Killing of a Sacred DeerThe Lovers, and The Florida Project.

Lots to get through today, so let’s not waste words and begin straight away with a film I saw on Wednesday but was embargoed from talking about until now: Journeyman (B), the directorial return of Paddy Considine, who made waves in 2011 when he unleashed the dark, moody drama Tyrannosaur upon an unsuspecting world.  His follow-up… is nothing like that.  In fact, for his return to the director’s chair and screenwriter’s typewriter, he’s gone borderline sentimental on us, pumping out a thematically-empty crowdpleaser about a man overcoming the adversity of a traumatic injury with the support of his wife and friends.  The man is past-his-prime boxer Matty Burton (Considine), the wife is recent mother Emma (Jodie Whitaker), his friends are his former boxing team that are plagued by unspoken guilt about the injury, and the injury is severe brain damage from his years in the ring, which has stricken him with amnesia, severely damaged his mental capacities, and reduced his physical abilities to almost nothing.

So far, so generic, so disappointing, but whilst I did hear many grumblings from my fellow Press members about what they’d just seen when the credits started rolling, I can’t quite echo those sentiments.  Sure, Journeyman is a mainstream-grab for Considine, that’s narratively unsurprising and thematically empty.  Don’t even think that this set up is being used as a condemnation of boxing and the sports industry as a whole; boxing training is what helps Matty on the road to recovery, the boxing world is nothing but openly supportive of him and feel incredibly guilty over what happened, and he even admits during an ending speech that “I don’t blame boxing for what happened to me.”  And this does kind of sting, especially since there are roughly fifteen minutes in the middle where we seem like we’re about to go down much a darker and more difficult direction before getting right back to Feel-Good Recovery Story.

And yet, I gotta admit, it worked on me.  There’s even an inspirational montage in the middle of the film backed by an incredibly on-the-nose song by a James Bay-wannabe, and all it did was take the shine off of the film slightly.  If anything, Journeyman works as a great counterpoint to the existences of films like Breathe, which I covered in detail only eight days ago yet have forgotten almost everything about already.  Films like Breathe and The Theory of Everything put a bad name on the “inspirational crowdpleaser” movie; going through the motions in as hacky and squeaky-clean a manner as possible, without passion or, in a surprising many of cases, competent filmmaking skills.  Fact is, this type of movie crops up a lot because when it works, when it’s done well, it works gangbusters, provoking sadness and joy like nobody’s business.

Considine may not have much on the mind or anything to say with Journeyman – although, in fairness, Tyrannosaur could also be argued as not having much to say and that itself being the point – but the emotions in the filmmaking are front and centre, powerful, palpable, sincere.  There’s a genuine feeling to this filmmaking, regardless of how many times I’ve seen the nuts and bolts of it before, and that wills the story unfolding on screen into feeling like an exposed raw nerve that Considine plays with perfection.  He is not in the slightest bit afraid of falling back on cliché visually to get the job done, and yet he doesn’t coat the film in a glossy sheen that makes everything feel artificial, even if Matty lives in one of those expensive detached luxury homes that always seem fake regardless of their prevalence in the real world or not.

His screenplay, meanwhile, shades his characters just enough to make them feel like more than mere archetypes that adversity happens to, especially with certain actions that happen around the film’s midpoint that shite like Breathe and Theory wouldn’t dare go depict.  It’s a film where, even if there are a few contrivances here and there, characters largely act in a way that is emotionally true to themselves, which is why the finale had me bawling my eyes out so.  I was telling myself well before it even happened exactly what was going to happen and knew I would absolutely burst into tears should it come true, and that’s exactly what happened.  Considine himself is able to turn what, on the surface, is exactly the kind of massively irritating Oscar Bait performance that usually sinks these things into something altogether deeper and more painful through a minor underplaying, whilst Whitaker adds genuine complexity to a role that’s normally one-dimensional and uninteresting.

Now, look, I’m not saying that Journeyman is some kind of classic, and I am not disputing that this is a relatively disappointing regression in ambition for Considine’s sophomore directorial effort.  But I was hooked throughout, I found Considine and Whitaker’s performances to be low-key brilliant, Considine is definitely a director of great skill, and I finished the film in floods of tears.  Journeyman aims modestly, but it hits its targets with aplomb, and should we really disparage it for that?  Again, there’s a reason why this well keeps being returned to, and it ain’t just to fish for meaningless statues.

As for the films I saw today, let’s kick off with the reason I couldn’t do a Cold Open to yesterday’s article.  The Killing of a Sacred Deer (C+)…  Look, I’m going to be straight with you: I think Yorgos Lanthimos is just not for me.  See, I loved the first hour of The Lobster – absolutely adored it, was fully ready to crown it as one of my favourite films of 2015 and was in pained hysterics at many points.  But then spent almost the entire second hour very slowly and very painfully falling out of love with it, and those have also turned out to be many of the reasons why I just could not get into Sacred Deer.  So I’m thinking that Lanthimos and I just won’t get along on any level other than a disassociated appreciation of decent craftsmanship.  Therefore, if you loved all of The Lobster and his past non-English work such as Dogtooth (and none of which I have seen), then continue to be excited for Sacred Deer, cos you’ll probably love it too.  I can only tell you what I thought of the movie, though, and what I thought was largely “this is fine, I would like for this to end now, please.”

For those who don’t know, in any case – and I’ll tread carefully because I know that exact specifics have largely been avoided by all the marketing up to this point – The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a psychological drama that follows Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell).  He’s a heart surgeon, sober for the past three years, with a loving optometrist wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman who, by law of averages, I have to encounter in a good film again at some point), and two smart and well-behaved children, elder daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and younger son Bob (Sunny Suljic).  Steven is also close with a teenage boy called Martin (Barry Keoghan), meeting him in diners, bringing him presents, and going around to the boy’s house for tea.  There’s something not quite right about Martin, and Steven’s reasons for associating with the boy aren’t completely altruistic, but the problems begin when Steven attempts to stop associating with Martin, upon which point something inexplicable happens.  It’s tied to Martin, in fact it’s his whole reason for insinuating himself into the Murphys lives, and it’s left Steven with an unconscionable choice to make.

In essence, Sacred Deer is a morality play, based around old folklore and mythological ideas of karmic balance and justice, tied towards the theme of indecisiveness and cowardice, topped off with some good old-fashioned patriarchal masculinity.  It, like The Lobster, is a fantastic film from a production and sound design standpoint.  The score roars with atonal dread, at certain points even sounding more like industrial machinery racing by than instruments playing music together.  Lanthimos and cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis craft largely-empty, lifeless spaces of pure artificiality, where nothing exists in a recognisable reality, and any and all movement is at once stiff and controlled yet clumsy and uncertain.  The actors and actresses all deliver the dialogue better than pretty much anybody else would have been able too, Farrell and Kidman (shaky accent and all) especially.

But, try as I might (and I really did try), I just could not cross over the threshold into fully liking Sacred Deer.  Despite the film’s very best efforts, it never managed to unsettle me or get under my skin like it was trying so very, very hard to.  Part of this is because Lanthimos and his regular co-screenwriter Efthymis Filippou can’t help but play a lot of the film for very black laughs, mainly revolving around an obsession with blunt conversations about masturbation and menstruation – although this approach does lead to the film’s brilliant climax, decided by a character spinning around pathetically in a circle – so they don’t invest enough in the slowly mounting dread.  Further from that, Lanthimos’s deliberate artificiality actively undermines the psychological dread he’s supposed to be building up.  How can I be appropriately unsettled by how weird things are getting, and whether what’s going on is explainable or connected to the boy, if everything was already weird and inexplicable at the outset?

Which brings us to the most obvious sticking point: Lanthimos and Filippou cannot write convincing dialogue.  This worked for large parts of The Lobster, where everything is supposed to be artificial and unconvincing, before becoming a major sore point of its second half for me, and it fails here for the same reason it failed in The Lobster’s second half.  Nobody speaks like a recognisable human would.  At best, it feels like an approximation of how the first-generation of sentient androids would attempt to communicate, trying and failing very awkwardly to approximate human speech.  At worst, it feels like something originally written in Greek, copy-pasted into Google Translate, and then copied back into the script with no alterations or clean-up; a soulless computerised bodging of human speech.  In any case, it only adds to the deliberate emotional distance of the film, keeping the viewer at too far a reach from the events on screen to unsettle or form any attachments to anyone or anything.

And that brings us to the biggest reason why I think Lanthimos and I just will not get along: like The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer seems borderline nihilistic.  Both about its characters and its attitudes to the world and humanity at large.  Despite the constant references to the ideas of cosmic justice and the quiet indictment of Steven’s refusal to just buck the hell up and make a goddamn decision already, Sacred Deer is largely uninterested in explaining why this is happening, and how the exact kind of payback is of equal value to the transgression Steven committed.  There’s a lack of an underlying message, of something to say about the human condition which this film is ostensibly about other than “everyone is a selfish amoral bastard, who will either happily cannibalise those nearest and supposedly dearest to them when the chips are down, or are too spineless to do even that, so fuck it all.”  (Also, side bar, it’s two hours long but could be at least a full half hour shorter; the biggest thematic potential is located in the last half hour, but by then the film is just blowing past it and has wasted way too much time repeating itself at the hospital beforehand to be able to give it the time required.)

With respect, that’s not really what I’m wanting out of my films right now.  I find that specific type of nihilism – of which The Lobster also revealed itself to be addicted to, hence why I eventually finished that film sour – to be immature and lacking in substance, and I can’t connect to it, even when I really try like I have done here and in The Lobster (my issues with clinical depression and attempting to perform self-care also factor in this respect).  The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I am willing to admit, is objectively pretty damn good, hence the grade.  It is a Yorgos Lanthimos film and if you are a fan of his work then I see no reason why you won’t also love this one.  But it’s clear to me that Lanthimos and I just aren’t going to be compatible, which is disappointing to me, given how much I like his distinctive visual style.  It’s the content that comes with those images that I cannot get behind.

Later, I dipped back into the Official Competition strand that has been so good to me up to now with the middle child of the inadvertent A24 Day I ended up having, The Lovers (B), the latest from writer-director Azazel Jacobs, released into American theatres back in May yet still without a UK release date.  It stars Debra Winger and Tracy Letts as Mary and Michael, a long-married couple for whom the passion died out long ago.  Whenever they are home, they almost never talk and can barely stand each other; when they’re not home, they’re making up lame excuses to feed the other in order to avoid going home, whilst toiling away in soul-crushing cubical-based office jobs they hate.  Unbeknownst to one another, they’ve both been cheating on the other in committed states for years now; he with ballet teacher Lucy (Melora Walters), she with novelist Robert (Aiden Gillen).  They’re even preparing to leave each other for their prospective side-pieces, planning on waiting until after their son Joel (Tyler Ross) and his girlfriend Erin (Jessica Sula) visit for the weekend.  Except that one morning, they wake up facing each other, inches away from each other’s lips, and suddenly that passion has returned with a vengeance.

What we have here, in simple terms, is a Woody Allen drama crossed with a screwball comedy, now making it two films at this festival that make better Woody Allen films than anything Allen himself has put out recently (the other being Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits), particularly emphasised by Mandy Hoffman’s grand sweeping score that stays on just the right side of overbearing.  The central question that hangs over the film is simple yet also complex: where has this sudden passion come from?  Is it merely infatuation born from a certain particularly good morning, destined to blow over the second that Mary and Michael hit a rough patch again?  Is it based on adrenaline, the thrill of cheating and knowing that the end is in sight, so getting off on the knowledge that it’s coming to a point?  Or is it the opposite, a sudden inadvertently-shared realisation that they are almost a week away from never seeing each other again and being terrified of that idea?  Or was it really there all along, but in ways that are deeper-set and messed-up than either are willing to admit?

The Lovers does have an answer, but it takes its time exploring all of those ideas fully, and settles on the one I actually least expected.  Yet there’s something weirdly sweet about this, in spite of Mary and Michael thoughtlessly hurting a lot of people and each other with what they are doing, which can be put down to Letts and Winger’s surprising amounts of chemistry.  It’s an understated yet often uproarious film, again in the vein of Woody Allen’s better dramas, and many of its best scenes are both humorous and emotionally affecting.  That rather measured pace and required waiting period before the film starts to zig does mean that it takes a while to get going, but The Lovers is a lot of fun and another strong Competition showing this year.

Finally for today: Sean Baker is the real deal, everyone.  I know that Tangerine was not his first film – nowhere near it, and that’s before we even bring Greg the Bunny into the conversation – but Tangerine was a shot of adrenaline into the Indie dramedy landscape, a work of screwball mania with extreme empathy and joy for a subset of people who are often demonised or the butt of hateful jokes whenever they’re depicted by most mainstream media, if at all (trans sex workers).  Its big crossover selling points, that it was entirely shot on iPhones and produced by the ever-prolific Duplass Brothers, ended up being trojan horses for a largely loud, sweet representation of people that America often, at “best,” merely tries to wash its hands of.  And if you had any doubt that Tangerine was some kind of fluke, The Florida Project (B+) is here to rebuke those false notions effortlessly.

Our location is the Magic Castle Motel in Florida, just a few miles outside of Walt Disney World Resort.  In the shadow of “the happiest place on Earth,” are a few motels just like the Magic Castle that largely house the unemployable and wayward.  Single mothers and their children who are holding down low-paying dead-end jobs or hustling tourists for the cash required to pay their rent, living week to week yet trying to allow their children the opportunity to grow up happy and provided for.  The Motel is looked after by Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who puts up an air of authority and boundaries, yet ultimately cares far more about his tenants than he lets on, so long as he gets paid at a reasonable time and nothing goes on that could attract police sirens to his place of business.  Our eyes, however, are largely those of Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince), whose mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), is practically still a kid herself and was recently made redundant at her job as a stripper.

Moonee is a troublesome, frequently gobby, and mischievous girl, introduced by engaging in a spitting contest on the car of the tenant at a different nearby motel, and prone to scrounging up money from tourists with her friends to pay for an ice cream to share.  She is frequently unsupervised at all hours of the day, and Halley does not exactly curb her daughter’s worst instincts when she is around, so Mooney has to make her own fun, but she’s never really brought down by this fact.  She’s an often-bored child, but she is an excitable and happy one, more than willing to make the best of her environment with what and who is around her.  Times can be hard, things can get bleak, and her actions can have consequences she’s not fully aware of, but she’s still naïve and innocent enough to keep soldering through, even whilst the rest of us can see the looming heartbreak on the horizon.

The fact is that Florida, and America at large, don’t want to think about people like Moonee and Halley.  They see them as products of their own foolish decisions, people who have thrown their lives away, of no use to anyone, and displaying no compunctions for improvement.  And whilst Halley and Moonee can absolutely be stubborn and pig-headed and confrontational and make things far worse than they need to be as a result of their impulsiveness (occasionally bordering on recklessness), they are still people.  This is the real forgotten America.  Not those racist anti-intellectual jackholes yelling on TV about political correctness going mad and an imaginary bogeyman coming to take all their jobs, but those for whom the American Dream, and Capitalism as a whole, has failed.  Who have to resort to desperate lengths to make rent for the week that lead to them being ostracised by the very people they had previously found a kinship with.  Those with no support system, either despairing at it all and regressing mentally or being too young to understand.  Those who live in the shadow of America’s biggest symbol of Capitalist success, yet are only ever acknowledged by outsiders who either turn up there by complete mistake or encounter them practically begging and resultantly take pity on them.

Baker brings those same reservoirs of sympathy and empathy to The Florida Project that he brought to Tangerine, backed up by a largely amateur cast who are all completely sensational, especially the children.  The laidback, episodic slice-of-life nature means that this is a film you have to surrender yourself to, accept that this is less about the slow journey towards a pivotal moment that will shatter Mooney’s innocence forever, and more about the digressions and day-to-day nature of her existence.  As a result, it’s arguably too long and tried my patience every now and again, but, quite frankly, I cannot think of a single sequence to cut.  To cut or streamline The Florida Project in any way would be to completely change the experience it provides, and it would be inarguably for the worse.  In many ways – in the shaggy length, in the subject matter of forgotten America, in the assimilation and embrace of Hip Hop culture into the lives of the lowest economic class – I was reminded of Andrea Arnold’s sprawling laconic epic American Honey.

But what separates American Honey from The Florida Project is simple and impossible to deny: joy.  American Honey is fundamentally a story of abuse, both from within and outside those forgotten by America.  But The Florida Project is a giant, smile-inducing, joyous ode of a thing.  It’s a frequently beautiful movie, whose heart aches palpably throughout, and even when things get too heavy, there’s always a place that Mooney can escape to, one that’s closer even than the giant amusement park that looms in the far distance.  That’s what hope looks like to a child, and it’s the one thing that America cannot erase from her.

Tomorrow: the Festival’s press screenings wind down with Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here.

Callie Petch was checking on your phone because this sweetness is drugs.

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