Search and Rescue Operations

Losing the Plot at Sundance

Suffused with the cruel beauty of winter light (and accompanied by the mournful twangs of a No Depression score), The Slaughter Rule derives its metaphoric density from the brutality and intimacy of contact sport. Staging a clash of outsized emotions against a mythopoeic backdrop of endless flatlands, the Smiths root their story in credibly detailed psychology and sociology: the ritualistic bonds and oedipal conflicts between sons and father figures; the ruinous toll of violence as a way of life, in particular the coiled rage native to small-town stasis; the comforts and awkwardness of physical proximity in relation to the homophobic safeguards that confound male friendships. The film's shambling melancholy and burnished realist textures recall the grunge and grain of '70s American cinema, but in its solemn scrutiny of landscape and human faces and form, it's also (like a few passages in Gerry) faintly reminiscent of Claire Denis's Beau Travail. (The Slaughter Rule's magisterial Scope cinematography is by erstwhile Van Sant collaborator Eric Edwards.) Gosling crackles with the economical intensity of a young Tim Roth, while Morse's portrait of impacted masculinity is a career peak—a remarkably fine-tuned study of a broken man concealing the open sores of regret, defeat, and fear behind a mask of brute willpower.

Mostly proficient and uninspiring, the other fiction features reinforced Sundance's long-standing gender divide: between sensitive, ostensibly feminist women's pictures and slick, phallocentric bloodbaths. Joe Carnahan's Narc was the most ostentatious example of the latter, an extra-pulp bad cop/worse cop number with Jason Patric and an enjoyably nuts Ray Liotta (who, from some angles, appears to have thickened into Orson Welles). Justin Lin's splashy teen flick Better Luck Tomorrow (which boasted "the best-looking cast," per festival codirector Geoffrey Gilmore at one screening) manages a few sly digs at the stereotype of overachieving Asian kids before devolving into incoherent black-comic provocation.

This most demographic-conscious of festivals has been known to tout the number of women directors in its lineups; this edition saw the equal opportunities decisively extending to hard currency. Rebecca Miller's triptych Personal Velocity was a worthy enough Grand Jury Prize winner—convincingly acted (by Kyra Sedgwick, Fairuza Balk, and especially Parker Posey) and evocatively shot (on DV, by the estimable Ellen Kuras, who collected a record third cinematography award). Based on her own short stories, Miller's screenplay has a clear-eyed, tough-minded composure, though the film occasionally drowns in an abundance of expository voice-over. (United Artists will distribute.) Patricia Cardoso's Audience Award winner, Real Women Have Curves, imparts the old-hat feel-good empowerment of its title with easygoing ebullience and a disarming performance by 17-year-old newcomer America Ferrera. Karen Moncrieff's modest and for the most part becomingly awkward Blue Car (which screened in the noncompetitive American Spectrum section but was amply compensated with a Miramax deal) shades in its Lolita template with more tact and acumen than the dubious self-expression-as-therapy setup would lead you to expect. Again, the actors are superb: debutante Agnes Brucker, as a soulfully pouty budding poet, and David Strathairn as her privately tormented English teacher.

Tadpole's idea of innovation is to reverse the Lolita scenario, milking yuks from the forbidden attraction between a 15-year-old boy and his stepmother. Yet another bright young first-timer, Aaron Stanford, plays the precociously urbane kid (he's half-French—hence the title—and prone to quoting Voltaire). Winick and his screenwriters, Heather McGowan and Niels Mueller, blatantly triangulate Woody, Whit, and Wes (even ripping off Rushmore's twee-baroque score). The results are pertly diverting but there's no excuse for the disfiguring videography: Tadpole has the consistency of a soufflé but looks like a mud pie.

The wacky sex comedy is, of course, an established Sundance titillation. Self-consciously outré as it is, Steven Shainberg's Secretary (based on a Mary Gaitskill short story) burrows into the psychology of sexual submission and domination instead of merely co-opting their surface traits as punchlines. As a masochistic typist, Maggie Gyllenhaal playfully fleshes out her character's quirks into three sympathetic dimensions, and as her red-Sharpie-wielding boss, James Spader (who might be revisiting his sex, lies and videotape persona, more than a decade down the line) gives full rein to his eccentric comic genius, previously hinted at in Crash and Supernova.

The biggest crowd crushes, as usual, were occasioned by the spectacle of Hollywood dignitaries slumming in nominally deglamorized roles. In The Good Girl, Miguel Arteta and Mike White's follow-up to Chuck & Buck, Jennifer Aniston's unhappily married checkout clerk escapes her humdrum existence by plunging into an affair with a morose young coworker who calls himself Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal, brother of Maggie, essentially reprising his title role in Donnie Darko). The filmmakers chronicle her bittersweet awakening with a snide bemusement passing for empathy. One Hour Photo, the writing-directing debut of talented music-video maker Mark Romanek, taps into the inherent creepiness of star Robin Williams, spookily tranquilized here as a sadsack photo-lab employee who becomes obsessed with a seemingly perfect family. But the arresting visuals are wedded to a rote stalker plot and garnished with some prosaic ideas about the metaphysics of photography. Festival founder Robert Redford, off shooting Spy Game last year, was in evidence at many of the high-profile premieres, which is to say, the ones attended by fellow celebrities. (Speaking of priorities: Was it just a coincidence that press screenings this year were held at two tiny new venues called the Garage and the Alley, and that most of the foreign films unspooled at the Black Box?)

« Previous Page
Next Page »

Now Showing

Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

Box Office Report

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!