Cannes ’14, Day Four: Outside competition, a striking horror film debuts

Cannes ’14, Day Four: Outside competition, a striking horror film debuts

One could come to Cannes, watch nothing but titles from the main competition, and still walk away having seen a wide, eclectic swath of movies. (It’s hard to argue with a viewing schedule that includes new films from Jean-Luc Godard, David Cronenberg, and Mike Leigh, to name just a few of this year’s featured figureheads.) But the risk of that viewing strategy is missing something revelatory showing elsewhere—not just in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, but also in Directors’ Fortnight or Critics’ Week, the two separate, parallel festivals held in Cannes every year. Yesterday was the first time that I ventured outside of the Palais, walking down the Croisette to the Miramar Hotel for a late-night Critics’ Week screening. And boy am I glad that I did: It Follows (Grade: B+), a new horror film from Michigan-based director David Robert Mitchell, is more arresting than any of the Cannes competition titles that have screened so far. It gave me chills.

The film pivots around an ingeniously simple and frightening genre premise, one that affords its filmmaker loads of opportunities for formal ingenuity. (Those looking to go in cold should skip the next four paragraphs—though It Follows wastes only a little time on mystery anyway.) In the suburbs of Detroit, teenage Jay (Maika Monroe) finds herself the target of a relentless, shape-shifting entity—a curse passed to her through sex with her new boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary). As he explains, only the afflicted can see this relentless specter, which will sometimes take the form of someone she knows. It will follow her, persistently but always at a walk, until she either falls into its clutches or passes the burden to a new sexual partner. “Never go anywhere with only one exit,” he warns.

Having laid its ground rules, It Follows exploits them in inventive and extremely effective ways. As plenty of J-horror movies have already demonstrated, something walking right at the lens is scary; this film takes that technique and runs with it. One scene situates the camera in the hallway of a school, putting it on a 360-degree spin cycle, so that the apparition gets closer with each successive pass. Other times, the filmmakers employ deep focus photography, placing a speck-like figure in the far distance, and generating tension from its glacial-slow approach. Gradually, the background space of every shot becomes a source of menace, and every extra on-screen becomes a potential threat. The film turns its viewers into paranoid spectators, studying the frame for signs of danger.

Fans of early John Carpenter will immediately identify the master’s influence—on the voyeuristic creep of the camera, the synth blare of the soundtrack, and the transformation of “safe,” warmly lit residential environments into landscapes of dread. (The film even quotes Halloween’s classroom scene.) But It Follows is no knockoff: Mitchell, who made the coming-of-age picture The Myth Of The American Sleepover, has returned to suburban Michigan, locking his lens on another group of adolescents burning away their final days of youth. Only difference is that there’s more than the future creeping up on them this time. As in Myth, the actors mostly look and talk like actual kids, and their characters express subtle anxiety about the adulthood that awaits them.

Because the curse is transmitted through sex, some have already read the “it” of the title as a kind of walking STD. But that doesn’t really scan, given the escape plan Mitchell provides. (You don’t get rid of, say, HIV by passing it to someone else.) The metaphor is looser, and the monster a personification of myriad fears—of growing up too fast, or of old sexual experiences, which continue to haunt us even as we create new ones. Anyway, there’s something more primal about the film’s appeal; irrational dread trumps symbolic analysis. In other words, it’s hard to theorize too much when you’re in constant danger of crapping your pants.

Cool as it is to watch a clever throwback tribute like It Follows, there’s also something nice about seeing a contemporary filmmaker more subtly express their influences. Tommy Lee Jones does as much with The Homesman (Grade: B-), a relatively no-frills Western that’s competing for the Palme. Big-screen oaters are so infrequent these days that the genre has gained a certain fundamental novelty, and The Homesman earns additional interest points by refusing to frame its action as a direct homage to some giant of the form. (His last one, 2005’s The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada, felt a bit like imitation Peckinpah.) Here, Jones has simply made a handsome, seriocomic frontier road movie about a Nebraska spinster (Hilary Swank) who agrees to transport three women—all immigrant wives who have lost their minds—to a church in Iowa, where they can either get some help or be sent back abroad. Along the way, the heroine rescues a scoundrel (Jones) from the gallows, and the two make their way east together, the promise of a cash payoff ostensibly the motivation for his involvement.

The Homesman oscillates freely from mismatched-buddy comedy to grim despair, but that’s not really a problem. (The Searchers, remember, juggled disparate tones too.) Jones demonstrates some directorial chops, especially during a fiery late set piece; he also brings a rascally energy to his role, even if the character seems somewhat inconsistently conceived—a mewling fool one minute, a seasoned outlaw type the next. Ultimately, and despite the heaviness of its subject matter, the film just fails to satisfy on a narrative level. Save for one big surprise, its characters’ journey (pulled from the pages of a Glendon Swarthout novel) isn’t an exceptionally dramatic one. And any hope that The Homesman will genuinely deal with mental illness in 18th-century women fades quickly, as the three passengers are essentially portrayed as a collective, fidgety MacGuffin—the driving force of the quest, not unlike the dead body in Three Burials. Jones flirts with making a Western with gender on the brain, but his interests prove considerably more common. It’s called The HomesMAN, remember. 

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