Some of the best films I saw at Fantastic Fest were nearly unclassifiable, ranging from allegorical religious retellings in the streets of Budapest to paeans of pride for a profession that possibly should have gone by the wayside. What they all have in common is a sympathy for the outsider and the rule breaker. Here are a few of my favorites.
My Friend Dahmer is adapted from a comic of the same name, by Derf Backderf, a high school pal of the man who would become the serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer. The film, directed by Marc Meyers, is a kind of coming-of-age tale that dissects a troubled kid’s descent into murder. There’s no one single person or event to blame for Dahmer kidnapping and eating seventeen young men; his devolution here gets imagined as the cumulative effect of slights and bullying at school and neglect from his mentally ill mother (Anne Heche) and checked-out, emasculated father (Dallas Roberts). Despite this film ultimately being about watching a morose child lose his grip on reality, Meyers and Backderf find in Dahmer’s painful naïveté moments of humor that draw a laugh even as they pull at your heartstrings and send a chill down your spine. On a field trip, Dahmer gets paired up in a hotel room with the school’s only black kid. The room is silent as Dahmer studies this statuesque football player and remarks that his roomie’s palms aren’t as black as the rest of his skin — oh, the cringe-laugh that broke in my theater. Then Meyers pushes the encounter into unnerving territory when Dahmer asks, “Are your insides the same as my insides?” We know where that line of questions might be leading in Dahmer’s head — is this when he’s finally going to snap? Still, these laughs and this tension aren’t cheap — Meyers manages the feat of balancing complex tones and never seems to poke fun at the subject matter or the characters. My Friend Dahmer is both sensitive and fascinating, featuring a stellar, mouth-breathing performance of insecurity from former Disney star Ross Lynch.
The outcast in Jupiter’s Moon is more of the religious variety. In a thrilling, disorienting opening, a truckload of refugees stands in silence, listening through the container’s walls for the signal that it’s safe to disembark and start their new life in Hungary. But only a minute in, things go awry: Gunshots echo out, people push and punch one another to escape the vehicle, and the truck slowly descends into water, trapping some refugees and forcing others, including Aryan Dashni (Zsombor Jéger), to swim underwater to the shore, where more gunfire awaits them — think of the heart-pounding single-shot scenes from Children of Men. Aryan gets shots in the chest, and it seems his fate is certain. But we see this is something besides a refugee story when his body is suddenly pulled into the sky, defying gravity, lifted to safety and slowly healed midflight. Gabor Stern (Merab Ninidze), a doctor in need of salvation, befriends the angelic Aryan and tries to help him get to safety while the authorities track the duo and the narrative begins mirroring the story of Jesus. The allegories can get a little cheesy, but some incredible action sequences wash away much of that milky taste. In one car chase through the streets of Budapest, director Kornél Mundruczó mounts the camera to the grill of the car that’s tailing our heroes’ getaway vehicle. We race through the streets as people jump out of the way and cars spin off in every direction. It’s a single take with no cutaways; it relies solely on the choreography of this pulsing pursuit to ramp up tension. One way to get people to care about the plight of refugees might be to couch their stories in a package of breathtaking action.
Let the Corpses Tan is a story populated almost entirely by outsider characters, whose antisocial behavior leads them all to a remote home carved into the rocky Italian cliffside, where an eccentric, police-hating artist, Luce (Elina Löwensohn), and her guests are joined by a crew of misfit criminals on the lam. Co-directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani construct a stunning — even awe-inspiring — tale of double-crossing and unrepentant human casualty by employing the filmmaking methods of western director Sergio Leone, along with the lurid, exploitative imagery of classic Italian giallos. The camera will in one moment push in like a gunshot for an ultra-close-up of Luce’s shifty eyes before swing-panning out to a glaringly bright ecru wide shot of the coast’s rocky expanse, then pushing in again on an object of interest, like a pig carcass hanging in a kitchen — Cattet and Forzani would prefer you not get too comfortable. In one glorious scene of carnage, when one of the criminals is attempting to make off with the gold bricks weighing down the trunk of the getaway car, we’re seemingly transported to a surreal landscape of pitch-black nothingness. We know the man’s body is being riddled with bullets because of the sound of incessant gunshots, but Cattet and Forzani present the scene as the man being painted in iridescent gold as globules of the precious metal pour down around him. More times than I could count I had no idea what the hell was happening, and also just didn’t care that I didn’t know — this film is that strange and beautiful.
The most surprising discovery of “otherness” that I found at this festival, however, came from a shorter documentary, directed by Viktor Jakovleski, called Brimstone & Glory. In Tultepec, Mexico, making dazzling explosives is a way of life for the community. Nearly every building in this tightly knit town is emblazoned with the word “PELIGRO” — danger. Old men fit fuses into fireworks with the two fingers and nubs they have left. A little boy flinches each time one of the other kids working in the makeshift factories sets a stick of fireworks down too fast. We hear the child say that one lapse in attention could destroy the whole town, and yet here are all these people getting ready for the National Pyrotechnic Festival, an otherworldly display of colorful explosives. As the festival begins, thousands flood into fields and town streets to watch castle-like towers of fireworks spin and spark, and Jakovleski gets us right into the action, mounting a camera to the helmets of some of these technicians, who climb the towers, risking life and limb as their skin is seared over and over.
And if these scenes of slow-motion wonderment weren’t enough to get your heart pounding, Jakovleski then follows the crowds for their version of the running of the bulls — giant, elaborately constructed paper bulls filled with explosives get pushed through the streets while the crowds begin lighting them up, sending luminescent spirals and fire everywhere. Plunged into the chaos and thrill of this moment, we eventually come to understand that this display isn’t just recklessness but a kind of planned event of self-immolation. People are burned and scarred and screaming in the streets, and the boy tells us that this whole thing is “for people to feel something and take something away with them, like a scar or something.” These people accept the consequences of living like there’s no tomorrow. A man tells us, “When the burning starts, you feel it’s eternity.” For the people at this festival, it is the closest they will feel to the sublimity of god as they stand awaiting their fate in a rain of fire. And now we can feel a little bit of that too, with Brimstone & Glory.