Toronto, Day Five: The Weinsteins somehow get a crowd-pleaser out of a Tracy Letts adaptation

Toronto, Day Five: The Weinsteins somehow get a crowd-pleaser out of a Tracy Letts adaptation

How could a harrowing, three-hour, Pulitzer Prize–winning night of theater be transformed into the two-hour, feel-good Oscar bait that Harvey Weinstein would surely demand? Compression and an added sheen of earnestness mar the film adaptation of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County (Grade: B-), but enough of the original remains that the movie gets by adequately enough. Letts’ own screenplay preserves the play’s major beats, and as long as the action stays claustrophobic and “stagebound,” the material often works like gangbusters.

The film follows as the Weston clan as they assemble for a tumultuous reunion, prompted by the disappearance of their father (Sam Shepard). Matriarch Meryl Streep pops pills; her eldest daughter (Julia Roberts), who’s quietly separated from her husband (Ewan McGregor), has had enough of her mom’s drug-fueled raving. One of Roberts’ sisters (Juliette Lewis) is preparing to marry her caddish fiancé (Dermot Mulroney), while another (a superb Julianne Nicholson), the only one who never left Oklahoma, is secretly carrying on an affair with her cousin (Benedict Cumberbatch). Recriminations and revelations run rampant over the course the visit, in between bursts of gaspingly funny dialogue—such as a debate over whether it’s possible to taste animals’ fear—that somehow augment, rather than relieve, the tension.

While the decision to “open up” the play with shots of dusty roads and trips to town was inevitable, it’s a distraction, especially in the first act. Confinement—a sense that there’s no escape for this family—is essential to August’s effect. TV veteran John Wells (whose last theatrical feature was The Company Men) directs with a heavy hand, flattening much of the humor and spikiness in Letts’ construction. He also lays on a sappy, completely inappropriate Gustavo Santaolalla score that suggests this is a story of uplift, rather than a bleak night of characters sloughing their way toward loneliness and death. The Steppenwolf-originated production played like a Eugene O’Neill slow-burn laced with the profanity and shock humor that Letts brought to Bug and Killer Joe. This is hardly the kind of family drama to which it should be safe to bring grandma—but the movie, regrettably, caters to everyone.

A few subplots are lost while others are simply truncated—the thread in which Mulroney attempts to ply Roberts’s 14-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin) with dope no longer gets the buildup it requires. And while Streep makes a fantastic gorgon, Roberts can’t match the righteous energy or complexity Amy Morton had on stage. Still, once the clan sits down for a lengthy dinner, with Streep tossing barbs at everyone in her midst, the intensity of one of the most acclaimed theater pieces of recent years blasts through. This household can only be fucked up so much.

It’s almost certain that we’ve never heard Errol Morris ask as many questions on-screen as we do in The Unknown Known (Grade: B), a revealingly unrevealing sit-down with Donald Rumsfeld. Not surprisingly, former defense secretary proves to be Morris’ coolest customer ever, parrying every query with a torrent of head-spinning rationalizations. The movie is ostensibly a companion piece to the filmmaker’s doc on Robert McNamara, The Fog Of War (2003), but that comparison only goes so far. McNamara used the film as an opportunity to admit his mistakes in Vietnam. The grinning Rumsfeld seems to regard the project more as a challenge in not admitting anything. McNamara’s policy was, “Don’t answer the question you were asked. Answer the question you wish you were asked.” Rumsfeld takes this to another level, giving contradictory answers at different points throughout the interview.

Morris is clearly fascinated by Rumsfeld as an obfuscator and a genius of doublespeak—a man who responds to every question with counterquestions, denials, rephrasings, or palindromic mottos. There’s discussion of how during George W. Bush’s administration, Rumsfeld sought to mold terminology, seeking new definitions for “guerrilla warfare,” “insurgency,” and “unconventional warfare.” He says he doesn’t believe the American people thought Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda were affiliated, even though he’s on TV clearly courting that confusion. He won’t say that the Iraq War could have been avoided outright, ceding only that various aversion scenarios were “possible.” He defends Guantanamo as humane and well-run on the basis that there was (he claims) no waterboarding there. When Rumsfeld speaks about the importance of imagining worst-case scenarios in foreign policy, Morris suggests it might be better to make assessments from evidence rather than conjecture.

The title comes from a phrase in one of Rumsfeld’s memos, which were apparently so numerous at the Pentagon that they became known as “snowflakes.” In one of the memos, Rumsfeld defines the “unknown known” as “things that you think you know that it turns out you did not,” which sounds like a pretty good description of the case for WMD in Iraq. In a characteristic swerve at the end of the film—and the closest thing Morris gets to a non-concession concession—Rumsfeld attempts to give the term its opposite meaning.

Political murkiness also rules the day in Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves (Grade: B-), an atmospheric but surprisingly thin procedural from the director of Old Joy and Meek’s Cutoff. The film follows a group of Oregon eco-terrorists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard) as they plot to blow up a dam—securing false identities, building explosives, planning their getaway. The suspense is built exquisitely, in such scenes as Fanning negotiating with a farm-supply salesman (James LeGros) to make a purchase without showing a Social Security card. But the movie’s upshot is banal, as it gradually dawns on this trio that their plan isn’t as brilliant as they thought. The last act is a letdown, a case of characters who’ve painted themselves into a corner leaving a filmmaker without a way out.

I spent the first 10 minutes of Sebastián Lelio’s crowd-pleaser Gloria (Grade: C+) waiting to get off a rush line, so consider this a provisional grade at best. This Chilean festival favorite bears no relation to Cassavetes’s Gloria, though it does center on a middle-aged woman (Paulina García) schlepping around a child of sorts—specifically, the suave man-child (Sergio Hernández) the divorcée has taken as her lover. García’s performance is really the whole show here, and the film portrays late-life romance and sexuality in a bracingly matter-of-fact way. But the movie becomes disappointingly pat the more García is pressed to make a decision on her lover, who stubbornly refuses to let her be a part of his life apart from the bedroom, always using his family as an excuse. A coup de grace via paintball gun seems at odds with the movie’s tone. —Ben Kenigsberg


The last time I caught a Kelly Reichardt movie in Toronto, I knew I had I seen something very close to a masterpiece. This was 2010 and the film was Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt’s hypntotic Western odyssey about a group of Oregon Trail travelers lost in the wilderness. Even if I didn't know what to make of all of it—including that glorious ellipsis of an ending, which looks now like the moment that clinches its greatness—the movie imprinted itself on my brain in the way only a new classic can. I wish I could say the same about Night Moves (Grade: B), Reichardt’s new feature, and the first she’s made since Meek’s. Another of the director’s intimate portraits of people living on the fringes of society, it’s at once her most plot-heavy and pedigreed production—the three leads are Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard—and one of her most oblique. It wades into choppy ethical waters, but seems to stubbornly resist taking any kind of clear stance. And while it looks and feels like a character study, Reichardt puts a vast emotional distance between the viewer and her three protagonists. To say that we get to know any of these characters, or to really understand their motives, would be a stretch.

For a while, though, Night Moves coasts on mystery. Early scenes depict Eisenberg and Fanning traveling across Oregon, seeing a couple of sights and stopping to buy a boat. In a cramped, basement-like venue, they watch an amusingly useless “political” essay film. Are they a couple going through a rough patch? Only when the two reach Sarsgaard’s remote woodland home does the purpose of their journey become clear: The three are radical activists plotting the destruction of a dam. Because of that element, Night Moves is bound to be compared to this year’s other eco-terrorism indie, The East. Yet while the earlier film portrayed its characters theatrically, as eccentric hippie ideologues, Reichardt doesn’t romanticize her trio of troublemakers. They’re ordinary people who pay a price for their attempts to live outside of mainstream society—just like the outlaw lovers of River Of Grass, Will Oldham’s aging bohemian in Old Joy, Wendy from Wendy And Lucy, and the lost pilgrims of Meek’s Cutoff.  

Accruing fascinating procedural details en route to its centerpiece, Night Moves eventually becomes a study in guilt and paranoia. Just as Meek’s fed the conventions of the oater through the director’s distinctly offbeat sensibilities, this new one sometimes feels like her attempt at noir—especially once the threat of getting exposed creates a rift between Eisenberg and Fanning. But it never quite convinces on that front. There’s a certain perversity in casting Eisenberg, a nervous chatterbox of an actor, as a silent brooding type. (A little of the spiky ego he displayed in The Social Network might have enlivened the later scenes.) When the movie pivots its primary focus to him, revealing more details about the character’s day-to-day life and offering an alternative to his methods of social change, what tension Reichardt has built in the first half seems to disappear on the Oregon breeze. Her movie works not as a thriller nor a political statement—its ending is typically, and perhaps not beneficially, ambiguous—but as a pure mood piece. To that end, it’s consistently involving, mostly because Reichardt has developed into a master of atmosphere. Here’s hoping she applies that gift to more fully formed material next time around.

Craftsmanship can’t salvage Enemy (Grade: D+), a ludicrous psychodrama based on José Saramago’s novel The Double. The film itself is something of a double: It’s one of two movies playing at TIFF this year directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Unlike Prisoners, however, which applied the filmmaker’s considerable prowess to a conventional thriller, Enemy is basically devoid of suspense. Gyllenhaal plays a Toronto history professor who discovers, through improbably random means, that he has an identical doppelgänger—a third-rate bit actor he attempts to contact, only to later regret the decision. Rather than play the scenario for black humor or Hitchcockian intrigue, Villeneuve mines it for tedious pathological navel-gazing and banal sexual fantasy. Given that none of this is meant to be taken on a strictly literal level, it’s forgivable that both of Gyllenhaal’s characters rarely act in a manner that resembles human behavior. But as a nightmare of suppressed desires, the film is tiresomely bombastic, its horror-movie strings never letting up. Dead Ringers this ain’t.

If Villeneuve seems to be working against his own strengths with Enemy, so too does indie horror maverick Ti West with The Sacrament (Grade: C-). The director made one fine film, the retro-slasher homage The House Of The Devil, but he seems now to have been consumed by the booming business of found-footage thrillers. Following on the heels of his dull contribution to the original V/H/S, The Sacrament further confirms that West’s talents for composition and staging are completely wasted on a genre of deliberate artlessness. Presented as a VICE-funded bit of immersion journalism, it sends the usual SXSW suspects (AJ Bowen, Kentucker Audley, and Joe Swanberg) to a remote religious commune, where one of the boys’ sisters (Amy Seimetz, because who else?) has holed up. West has a knack for slow builds, and the early scenes possess a certain nagging creepiness. But the mock-doc structure is totally inconsistent; if this is supposed to be an official ready-to-air segment, with an intro and title cards, why does it also appear to be unedited raw footage of the trip? More problematic is the way West essentially re-creates a real-life atrocity, beat for awful beat, for the sake of some second-rate thrills. One should never expect tastefulness in a film produced by Eli Roth.

For trivializing tragedy, only Atom Egoyan’s useless Devil’s Knot (Grade: D+) could compete. Though supposedly focused on the growing uncertainly of Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), one of the mothers whose child was found slain in the woods of West Memphis, the film conveys that psychological angle solely through close-ups of Witherspoon’s shifting eyes. (There’s also a scene, possibly torn from the 2002 book Egoyan is adapting, in which a classroom full of children come to hug the grieving mother. Real or invented, the moment epitomizes the Movie Of The Week mawkishness on display here.) Mostly, though, Devil’s Knot just plays like a weirdly synthetic restaging of scenes from the documentary Paradise Lost, as actors try and fail to re-create the overwhelming emotional intensity of that real footage. Egoyan has called this the most anonymous movie he’s ever made, which seems about right, though his personality pops up very briefly during the manhunt scenes. Or maybe they just reminded me of Exotica. Either way, the film is only interesting for the questions it provokes about all such dramatizations. Were we always afforded the kind of first-hand glimpse at a case that Paradise Lost provides, would all true-crime dramas reek of bullshit? Are every one of them this facile, and we just don’t know because we haven’t seen the tapes? —A.A. Dowd