The biggest surprises of the week so far came on the sixth day with an interspecies, Cold War-era fantasy; a savage reinvigoration of the prison-break subgenre; and David Fincher’s televised successor to his serial killer masterpiece.
Day Six was, simply put, the best day of the festival so far. There was a fair level of trepidation going into each of my the screenings, but those feelings were soon overcome, allowing for a truly enjoyable day of contemporary cinema and television.
My relationship with Guillermo del Toro is a patchy one. His films in his native tongue captivate me in a way that his American ones don’t: give me creepily authentic ghost story of The Devil’s Backbone over his stylistically rich-but-shallow Crimson Peak, or Cronos’ unnerving vampiric horror over his boisterous Blade sequel. However much apprehension I take into each of his American fables, I’ll always give him the benefit of the doubt because of his preeminent gothic style. My mistrust for these big releases was finally washed clean with The Shape of Water (A-) a hugely successful, hugely adult fantasy tale set in the Cold War 1960s. Sally Hawkins absolutely sells it as Elisa, a mute maid in a top secret government facility, emoting and communicating with the utmost sincerity without becoming overwrought or irritating (the same cannot be said for those in Wonderstruck: which also adopts subtitles for sign language). Michael Shannon also brings his A-game in one of his most entertaining roles yet: as the villainous government official Strickland decrees those around him to be genetically inferior, he consistently brings a furious quality to that of a man whose only true path is toward ruin. Who stole the show, though (in a film where not a character is wasted) is Richard Jenkins’s benevolent, fatherly Giles. Elisa and Gile’s relationship gives the film a major push from entertaining fare, to enchanting, romantic joy. It’s wonderful and surprising at every turn, oftentimes feels like a love story that could become as timeless as the lively tap-dancing films that Hawkins and Jenkins affectionately watch together.
Like how del Toro integrated post-Spanish Civil War into Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, The Shape of Water takes the historic truth of Cold War America and imbues each scene with the suspicion and fear that was so emblematic of the 1960s. Seemingly amiable characters swiftly slide into racist invectives as casually befitting of the time: homosexuality getting cited as a sin, blacks refused entry to public spaces, and fear of communism permeated every cautious glance and prudent conversation within the densely populated city. It may clearly be fantasy, but del Toro is a master of combining imagined horrors with real ones, and with The Shape of Water, he might’ve made his best film of all.
Had I been given the option, I would have watched S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl In Cell Block 99 (B+) first: to have something as perky as The Shape of Water to to follow would have been a smarter choice. Much has been said about Vince Vaughn’s role as Brad(ley) – an aloof, irascible drug-runner who finds himself breaking further into prison to kill a target – and all of it is true. Zahler’s film lives and dies with Vaughn: when he’s needed to be delicate, he is, and when he’s needed to be terrifying, he brings it in spades. The audience doesn’t need to like him: in fact, he’s as quick-witted as he is quick to anger, so there’s always a murmur of intense cruelty bubbling under the surface when things don’t go as planned, but he’s level-headed and intelligent when the script calls for it. Much like Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk, there’s a lot of prattling, but a counterbalance to this is the sharp brutalism of the violence. Zahler takes a sinewy realism (and has gone on record to state that everything here is practical) to the nauseating violence, so when it does materialise in short, punctuated jabs, it’s startling graphicness is enough to curl the toes.
Again, like Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is not as exploitative nor as cheap as its plot suggests (which I’m avoided so as not to ruin the surprise), so it takes its time getting to know Bradley and his life prior to incarceration, rather than jumping straight into the action. When things finally do move progress from one location to the next, we’re invested in his decisions, even if we don’t agree with them. To Bradley, these vicious explosions are justifiable, and so too are they to us. Another great flourish to the violence is the way in which it’s completely unshowy, yet elaborate in the fight scenes. These men are lugs, big swinging punches landing with a choreographed clumsiness that makes the fighting seem all the rawer, as well the lack of music that would only serve to dull the scenes. It’s ugly, protracted and messy, but purposefully so. Vaughn is unquestionably at the top of his game here, a physical and mental transformation that shatters his wise-guy image, and Zahler’s ability in building tension to increase the every impact shows that he’s a talent to watch when it comes to character-fuelled midnight movies.
I’ve great admiration for journalists who can power through reviews daily and with permanence. I’ve even greater appreciation for those who can do the same for television, reviewing episode by episode for long-form entertainment, having to take into account incomplete stories or narrative dead-ends if that’s the creator’s intent for initial episodes. My experience in writing about TV is utterly minimal (only writing small pieces about completed shows like Rectify) hence how jumbled and primitive my review of episodes 1 and 2 of David Fincher’s Mindhunter may seem. The first of these two episodes dealt largely with Jonathan Groff’s Holden Ford: a youthful teacher in hostage negotiation, educating rookies in the ways of verifying a criminal’s demands, finding himself out-of-his-depth in a field that’s progressing further than him. It’s not long he realises that there’s very little understanding on mental health and what makes serial killers who they are. In the backdrop of this first episode, the year is stated through news alerts and printed press papers during the capture of David Berkowitz, aka The Son of Sam, a true-life-serial killer whose murder spree was, according to Berkowitz, by the demands of a demon in the form of his neighbour’s dog. It’s fun to note that this capture of the Son of Sam runs concurrently with Fincher’s own masterpiece Zodiac, wherein Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) hears a similar news bulletin on the radio, creating a subtle, but lived-in universe with a historical thread.
The pilot is expectedly a lot of place setting: Holden and Bill (Holt McCallany) travelling from state-to-state (shown by an absolutely brilliant, identifiably Fincher-esque montage) teaching others how to better understand the criminals in their jurisdiction. During these trips, we get to know both characters to a small degree as they eat, sleep, and teach together, though there’s perhaps not enough of Bill’s private life on display. As a place setter, it’s functional but only works as well as it does because of the second episode Most of the running time of Episode 2 focused on real-life serial killer Edmund Kemper (the Co-Ed Killer) played with loquacious terror by relative newcomer Cameron Britton. Big Ed’s matter of fact way of speaking about his crimes – including a horribly blunt retelling of how he killed his first – strikes to the very core of Fincher’s thriller. That these episodes only feature one moment of onscreen violence in approximately 2 hours is hopeful: so far this is more in the vein of Zodiac’s penultimate scenes of insightful interrogation, rather than Se7en‘s graphic horror. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, Mindhunter is laugh out loud funny: deadpan lines come thick and fast, cutting up the grim explanations of murder to give these first two hours some finely-timed levity. If these first episodes are any indication of the deliberate pace and smart, pensive script, then this could be one of the best TV shows of the year.
Following the screening, Fincher, Holt and Groff were on hand to talk about the show, revealing little details that will be peppered throughout the show’s forthcoming release, as well as a humourously rowdy conversation about these scenes between Holt and co-star Hannah Gross, their burgeoning obsession with serial killer research, and how Fincher’s precision helped them to understand their backstories and purpose during the origin of serial killer profiling. Once this illuminating Q&A was over, David Fincher returned to the stage to talk about his career, from the way in which he values digital over celluloid, his amusing insight into actors being children whose vocation is essentially an every changing sandbox full of toys, to his collaborative efforts with Trent Reznor and rinsing Robert Murdoch to fund Fight Club. It was a joy to listen to a man whose filmography is so abundant with excellence, and to hear his methods in filmmaking made for a thoughtful, engaging screen-talk.