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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Desires dark and devious, from Texas to...

Screen Grabs: Desires dark and devious, from Texas to Brazil

Patricia Highsmith's hidden life, a steamy Bahia adventure, and the undeniable appeal of Justin Long

Desire—usually painful in one way or another, thwarted or hidden—drives a quartet of movies opening this weekend.

That would probably not be a term embraced by the subject of Loving Highsmith, Eva Vitija’s new documentary. Famed novelist Patricia Highsmith, whose books continue to be adapted into films and TV shows (most recently the Ben Affleck feature Deep Water, with a Ripley series imminent on Showtime), was generally seen as a misanthropic loner with a drinking problem—though some of that may have been projection, reflecting the violence and psychological torments of her books.

She herself admitted to seeing her life as “a chronicle of unbelievable mistakes” resulting in “bitterness and resentment.” Asked why her fiction was so dark, she considered that the main attraction of their plots for her wasn’t the deployment of murder, but the issue of guilt—and the appeal of her frequent antihero, clever sociopath Tom Ripley, laid in his ability to commit heinous acts without feeling any guilt whatsoever.

But Highsmith, who died in 1995 at age 74, also wrote “the first lesbian novel with a happy ending” (albeit under a pseudonym), 1952’s The Price of Salt. One surviving acquaintance says “She had a staggering amount of conquests,” though her relationships did not last. “I may not be capable of love…I repeat the pattern of mother’s semi-rejection of me,” she wrote, referencing what was undoubtedly the primary relationship of her life—one with the parent who divorced her father just before her birth, farmed her out to a Texas grandmother for six years, then disapproved of her every move thereafter.

This despite Highsmith’s remarkable success: Her very first novel Strangers on a Train (1950) was immediately made into one of Hitchcock’s greatest films, and her prolific subsequent output was not just popular (particularly in Europe), but held in unusually high critical regard for “genre” fiction. She herself disliked being thrown into a crime/mystery/suspense bracket. But she could hardly resist such ghoulish themes—or deny that there was an autobiographical element to even her most coolly brutal works.

Loving Highsmith includes interviews with former lovers, relatives who never left her native Texas (which she couldn’t seem to get far enough away from), and the lady herself in archival footage. There are also clips from some of the more prominent film adaptations, including The Talented Mr. Ripley, The American Friend, and Carol, Todd Haynes’ acclaimed 2015 version of The Price of Salt. Vitija’s feature is an aptly quiet but insightful overview of a personality that increasingly sought solitude (her final home was a modernist “bunker” in the Swiss countryside), one that’s admiring of her work but also finds cause for sympathy towards a woman not known to be terribly sympathetic. It opens at the Roxie this Fri/9.

Love is also painfully elusive for the protagonists in Aly Muritiba’s Private Desert, a film that couldn’t be more different from the antic satire of his recent Jesus Kid (which we reviewed just a few weeks ago, here). Daniel (Antonio Saboia) is a brawny veteran policeman who’s been suspended pending trial for a serious training-class incident, never quite spelled out here, that attracted hostile public and media attention—and left a rookie comatose. Meanwhile he’s stuck at home, caring for an elderly father (also an ex-cop) with dementia.

The one ray of light in Daniel’s depressing current existence is his long-distance relationship with Sara, who lives at the other end of the country in Brazil’s far north. They’ve never actually met, yet they are in love…or at least Daniel is. No wonder he’s so upset when Sara stops communicating. Driven to the brink by worry and loss, he impulsively pushes dad’s care on his sister, hops in the car, and drives thousands of miles to find a missing person.

Once Daniel arrives in “Sara’s” dusty Bahia town, where locals wonder why a stranger would come here at all, our viewpoint soon switches to that of his quarry. But s/he (played by Pedro Fasanaro) isn’t exactly the person Daniel had been led to expect, and isn’t sure they want to be found. When the inevitable Crying Game moment of realization occurs, it poses a challenge: Can the power of mutual longing overcome Daniel’s offended machismo?

Not all of this is convincing, and I found the ending a bit of a puzzling letdown. But Muritiba, co-writer Henrique Dos Santos, and their collaborators have created a quietly compelling drama void of both sensationalism and sentimentality. Daniel is not a knucklehead, and Sara/Robson more self-possessed than one might expect. There are also nicely drawn subplots involving the latter’s supportive best friend (Thomas Aquino) and his deeply religious grandmother (Zezita Matos), who represent the two sides of small-town life that “Sara” must somehow balance in order to live here. Imperfect but accomplished and heartfelt, Private Desert is probably the least-campy movie ever made to lean so heavily on “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It opens Fri/9 at Opera Plaza Cinemas in SF.

Ever since he played the ill-fated Darry in horror movie Jeepers Creepers a couple decades ago, I’ve had a soft spot for Justin Long, a likable actor adept at playing a slightly idealized, goofy Everyman, with a particular flair for comedy. His stabs at writing and directing have disappointed so far (A Case of You, Lady of the Manor), but he continues to generally be a bright spot in other people’s projects. By chance he’s got two films opening this weekend, and if in both cases his character ultimately proves just as unfortunate as in Jeepers (whose franchise is about to get a reboot, sans Justin), he still comes out looking good. Dead, but good.

House of Darkness is from Neil LaBute, which explains a lot. LaBute started out as (and still is) a playwright, caused a stir with his initial indie features as writer-director (the emotionally brutal In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors), then entered the Hollywood mainstream in a series of films that were…uneven, to say the least. (If 2000’s Nurse Betty remains underrated, the world still winces at the memory of his 2006 remake of cult classic The Wicker Man.)

Now he’s back to indie features, though they’re not so well-received anymore. Darkness is a partial rebound, however. Its genre tilt may disappoint some of his fans, while on the other hand, some horror fans will likely chafe at the ratio of talk > bloody terror. But it is vintage LaBute in terms of putting skillful actors to work negotiating a minefield of dialogue laden with queasy sexual and power-dynamic tensions.

At the outset, nondescript white-collar nice guy Hap (Long) can’t believe his luck: Out bar-crawling with a buddy, he met this gorgeous woman (Kate Bosworth as Mina), and now he’s driving her home. Way, way out into the country, to a gated country estate in whose stupefyingly huge Gothic manse she apparently, improbably lives alone.

Even in the car their banter has an edge, with the lady alternately flirting with him, then calling him out when he responds, then going “ha-ha, just joking.”

“Everything you say is so…loaded. Or sexy,” he says a little later, once she’s asked him inside for a nightcap. There, the ambiguity of her attitude grows sharper, as he gets drunker, and more amorous, yet more confused. Is he indeed going to “get lucky,” or is she playing some weird game? The sinister foreboding one feels is confirmed when it turns out that Mina is not, in fact, the sole resident here. Left alone and tipsy at one point, he experiences something terrifying that turns out to have been (it seems) a dream. But that comfort is short-lived. Nor is the viewer likely to be reassured that the names of this house’s occupants all happen to be those of characters in Bram Stoker’s original Dracula.

If what you want from this kind of movie is heaving bosoms, bared fangs and lots of screams, House of Darkness is bound to seem exasperatingly yakkety. Nearly all of it is, in fact, two (or three, or four) people sitting and talking. But LaBute knows exactly how to make such exchanges squirm-inducing, in a way that’s like Promising Young Woman meets Oleanna—a dissection of heterosexual male longing/terror in the age of MeToo. Sure, Hap is a “nice guy.” But doesn’t almost every nice guy have an inner creep that might crawl out if plied with a few drinks? And what if he begins to worry his quarry is baiting him to precisely that purpose? Or rather to provide justification for a purpose far, far worse.

This cat-and-mouse exercise is acted with terrific seriocomic subtlety by Bosworth (a master at bemused opacity) and Long. While House’s September 9 theatrical opening is bypassing Bay Area theaters any closer than San Jose and Santa Rosa, it will be available for streaming via On Demand and Digital platforms as of next Tues/13.

Zach Cregger’s Barbarian, which is duly opening Fri/9 in theaters everywhere, also starts out as a discomfiting two-hander between newly-met strangers—neither of which is Justin Long. Tess (Georgina Campbell) is in Detroit for a job interview, spending the night beforehand at an Airbnb rental in a neighborhood she doesn’t realize until the next morning is quite so…scary, in a bombed-out, post-apocalyptic way. But her more immediate problem is arriving to discover the place already occupied by Keith (Bill Skarsgard), who unknowingly double-booked it on a different site. They eventually decide to cope with this awkward situation by sharing the night’s shelter, and after developing a degree of mutual trust, they actually (platonically) enjoy each other’s company.

But there is something wrong with this lone habitable house on anabandoned block, whose doors seem to open and shut on their own. Something connected to the basement, to the secret corridor found in it, and…well, no sense spoiling anything further. Suffice it to say that what is eventually found down there is not a happy discovery for anyone.

Well in, we meet Long as AJ, a successful LA actor who’s suddenly got serious issues of his own—Barbarian, too, plays astutely with male anxiety in the MeToo era. That possibly career-ending development sends him back to Detroit, where he owns property. Including a particular property. He’s not going to like what he finds downstairs, either.

I’m not familiar with writer-director Cregger’s prior work, but while you can detect elements of Silence of the LambsThe People Under the Stairs, and other films here, Barbarian’s twisty path doesn’t linger on any note long enough to seem derivative. It is hella creepy, and clever enough that you won’t mind a plausibility gap or two. All the performances are very good, including Long’s—which takes him further away than I can recall seeing from his usual nice-guy territory. AJ is, in fact, pretty much a dick, and the actor makes that both funny and gratingly credible. These aren’t the kinds of movies people win awards for (at least not outside fantasy festivals), but if they did, there would be a 2022 red-carpet case to be made for Justin Long in both.

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