Autumn is here, which means mainstream movies (at least some of them) start getting more, well, grownup, due to the increasing proximity to year-end awards. Among them are invariably some very big juicy roles for actors who will soon go from standard theatrical-opening publicity to pounding the Oscar-campaign trail.
This Friday brings Cate Blanchett as a famed orchestral conductor whose personal conduct risks gender-flipped #MeToo scandal in Todd Field’s fictive drama Tar. Next week, we’ll get Danielle Deadwyler in Chinonye Chukwu’s Till, playing the real-life mother of a 14-year-old Chicago boy lynched in 1955 Mississippi, whose crusade for justice did a lot to spark the Civil Rights Movement. These are both expansive, expensively produced stories that are nonetheless practically one-woman shows, demanding a great deal from their stars and getting it.
Yet for my money, there’s a better film with an even more impressive female lead performance currently flying under-radar in US release. (While also available On Demand, the closest it’s playing to SF on a big screen is Cinelounge Tiberon.) It’s also arrived at a moment that particularly shows off British actress Andrea Riseborough’s rather flabbergasting range, as she’s just provided one of the more focused points as a silvery 1930s Manhattan socialite in David O. Russell’s starry misfire Amsterdam, and in another couple weeks will be seen diving headlong into John Waters-style camp caricature in Amanda Kramer’s baroque Please Baby Please. What can’t she do?
Well, “credible rural West Texas white-trash alky” might have been a fair guess, if not for the current To Leslie, in which she plays exactly that to knockout effect. We first glimpse her titular figure on a local TV news clip, yee-hawing over a $190,000 Lotto win. Six years later, she’s being evicted from a residential motel, all that money having been pissed away—and everybody she begs for a month’s rent knows full well she’s not “good for it.” With nowhere else to go, she lands on the Dallas doorstep of the now-adult son (Owen Teague) she’d abandoned to relatives.
Cautiously optimistic, he lays down a couple house rules, and she assures him “Baby, I don’t drink no more.” But that is a lie disproven so quickly and grossly, he sends her packing back to those relatives, played by Stephen Root and Allison Janney. They’re likewise willing to give her one more chance… which she promptly blows.
Chance and desperation cross Leslie’s path with that of Sweeney (Marc Maron), who manages a motel owned by the somewhat acid-flashback-rattled Royal (Andre Royo). In a moment of charitable weakness, he offers her shelter and a job she’s hardly in a position to refuse. She can, however, throw away yet another “last chance.”
That she ultimately does not makes this, in outline, a familiar redemption-from-rock-bottom story. Yet in the hands of writer Ryan Binaco and director Michael Morris (whose first feature this is, following much episodic TV work), that outcome feels far from inevitable, and Riseborough sometimes makes it seem impossible—her Leslie is not just a hot mess, but manipulative, thieving, vindictive, unlovable, allergic to self-awareness. “You’re what’s wrong with your life, not anyone else,” Sweeney tells her at one fed-up juncture, and he’s absolutely right.
Leslie’s somehow finding the will to excavate the better person she once had at least the potential to become—and go through tortuous alcoholic withdrawal as a first step—requires a leap of viewer faith. But it’s one the actress and filmmakers provide enough tough-minded conviction for us to accept. While it may not have the most newsworthy hook (or deep-pocketed studio/distributor backing), To Leslie is a stronger movie overall than any other awards-bait feature I’ve seen so far this season… so the lack of notice being given it is a real misfortune.
Triangle of Sadness
Also already in theaters, albeit more widely, is a film that’s gotten a lot more attention, starting with this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes. (Yet strangely, it was press-screened here too late for opening-weekend coverage.) That prize was also won by Swede Ruben Ostlund’s last two features, both among my favorites in recent years: 2014’s Force Majeure, about a couple who discover gaping fissures in their marriage during a ski-resort vacation, and 2017’s The Square, in which a Stockholm art museum’s chief curator negotiates the shifting minefield of current cultural proprieties. Those films were both slippery social satires that spelled nothing out, managing to score some very big laughs (and squirm-inducing moments) while maintaining a high level of ambiguity.
His latest is perhaps the most conceptually outre, yet at the same time more on-the-nose than those celebrated predecessors. Yaya (Charlbi Dean, who died of a sudden illness just weeks ago) and Carl (Harris Dickinson) are fashion models successful enough to get invited on a $250 million luxury-yacht cruise for free, presumably to provide eye candy. Their fellow passengers are a cross-section of the super-rich, from a Russian fertilizer tycoon to a sweet old British couple who turn out to be war profiteers. Staff (which include armed security personnel) must provide whim-fulfilling “service” to an absurd degree, even if the captain (Woody Harrelson) is a professed Marxist who can barely be coaxed from his cabin to greet these capitalistic predators.
The film’s most sustained setpiece is a horrifically funny illustration of the fact that money still can’t buy everything—it cannot calm a roiling sea, for instance. But past midpoint, the plot takes a drastic turn, becoming yet another version of J.M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton, in which extreme circumstances force a societal microcosm to abandon wealth-based hierarchy for one based on survival skills. Suddenly, the served become servants, and vice versa.
Ostlund trades in outrageous ideas with razored precision, so these 150 minutes are always compelling. At the same time, his satire is relatively heavy-handed this time, and the metaphorical significance re: climate change and other escalating global disasters rather obvious. (Also, I’ll admit the final shot sent me out annoyed, because it both demands attention and has no clear point.) Still, my reservations may be unfair, as this Triangle would look exceptionally bold and clever alongside just about anything… except The Square and Force Majeure. It’s currently playing theaters nationwide.
Visions: ‘Hinterland,’ ‘Kratt’
Two other new European features, both just released to streaming platforms, also offer distinctive conceptual leaps. In Hinterland from Stefan Ruzowitzky (of Oscar-winning 2007 historical drama The Counterfeiters), Murathan Musu’s protagonist is a PTSD-afflicted veteran finally allowed home to Vienna in 1920—two years after the end of WW1, and after several years’ brutal incarceration in a Russian POW camp few fellow soldiers survived. A former police inspector, he’s dragged back into his erstwhile department’s homicide investigation when men like him start turning up dead, stalked and grotesquely murdered by a serial killer.
Part retro noir, part Se7en-like gory murder mystery, part expressionist nightmare in the mode of films made in the period depicted like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Hinderland (aka “homeland”) at first seems like a familiarly gimmicky excuse for design wizardry—this vision of ruined Vienna has real actors performing against blue-screen, the backgrounds entirely computer-generated. The effect is indeed visually atmospheric to a spectacular degree.
But in the end, Ruzowitzky’s film transcends the status of a technological stunt. Helped by lead Musu’s haunted charisma, Hinterland achieves some real emotional depth, as well as interesting perspectives on postwar politics, economics, guilt, and ingratitude. Mostly, it’s about the cruelty of returning to a society one has “sacrificed all” for, only to discover it doesn’t want to hear about it, or even want you back. Film Movement has just released Hinterland to VOD and Digital platforms.
The Estonian Kratt is a “dark fantasy” that is nonetheless considerably lighter-hearted. Dumped by vacationing parents into the care of their Luddite country grandma (Mari), without even smartphones for company, two bratty city children (Nora Merivoo, Harri Merivoo) stumble upon an old book of occult spells. Unwisely, they summon a kratt, a figure of traditional local mythology that can grant wishes… with some terrible caveats, of course.
Though it takes quite a while getting to the nasty stuff, this elaborate black comedy on the cusp of horror is definitely not for children. Don’t tell that to writer-director Rasmus Merivoo, since presumably his kids are the stars here. The pacing momentum comes and goes, but if Halloween’s approach has you jonesing for a macabre fairy tale in the realm of Finnish Yuletide favorite Rare Exports, Kratt will definitely fill that bill. Red Water Entertainment releases it to Digital and VOD platforms on Tues/11.