Sundance went Hollywood a long, long time ago. You have to go back to the 1980s, before Sex, Lies, And Videotape (and the indie buying frenzy that followed—a cross-medium cousin to the major-label, alt-rock signing spree of the same period), to find a version of the festival largely free of studio presence and influence. Mini-major executives pack theaters, hungry to acquire that elusive “the next Little Miss Sunshine.” Filmmakers arrive with calling cards in their pocket, the festival their farm league to future superhero gigs. Movie stars and comedians take pay cuts to be cast against type, firming up their real-actor bona fides. There are times when Park City feels like a miniature Hollywood, a winter vacation destination for the stars and suits.
Sometimes the official selections seem rather miniature Hollywood, too—smaller in scale, smaller in cost, but unmistakably in the spirit of the kind of films that used to hit theaters regularly before the summer movie season became a year-round new normal. Here, an unlikely draw of Sundance reveals itself: This is now where you’ll find the kind of multi-genre entertainments that Hollywood has largely given up on, low budget movies with that endangered mid-budget feel, recalling the non-blockbuster studio picture that’s gone the way of Blockbuster. Here and there, perusing the festival’s lineup can feel like scanning the marquee of a multiplex circa 1998.
There’s something undeniably reminiscent of yesterday’s Hollywood about 892, one of the buzziest titles to premiere at Sundance this year. Directed by Abi Damaris Corbin, who ripped the story from the headlines, the film is a tense hostage drama starring John Boyega as a distraught military veteran who holds up a bank, but not for the money in the registers or the vault. Watching it, I thought of thrillers like The Negotiator or Mad City, where movie stars both loaded and sweated bullets, having tense arguments over phones while helicopters circled above their heads. 892 has a plain social conscience that makes it an obvious fit for the fest; this is, at core, a lament for the way America often treats soldiers after they return from service, and a broadside against lives ruined by bureaucratic indifference. Yet it’s been built in the rough, out-of-vogue mold of those aforementioned popcorn action dramas.
The film wastes no time getting desperate vet Brian Brown-Easley inside the banally claustrophobic Wells Fargo he commandeers with a concealed explosive, taking two employees (Nicole Beharie and Selenis Leyva) as hostages while he demands by phone that a wrong committed against him by the VA be righted. Boyega holds the movie together for a while through sheer intensity, showing us how this lost man’s sensible side (and his empathy for the two women he’s holding as bargaining chips) collides with his outrage, paranoia, and desperation. It makes you angry all over again about how the Star Wars movies fucked up a chance to give Finn a real arc.
Yet 892 can’t sustain the suspense of its pressure-cooker scenario. One problem is the relative lack of complicating incident; the situation here doesn’t so much escalate as remain at a maddening standstill—a product, one must assume, of Corbin sticking to what really happened on that unfortunate Atlanta morning. The film also stumbles on how it frames Brown-Easley’s actions in purely sympathetic, righteous terms: Immediately established as a victim of the system, he’s quick to assure his hostages they he won’t actually hurt them, that he’ll only blow the bomb once they’ve left the building. It’s a disclaimer that seems as much for our benefit as theirs, as though the movie were terrified that we won’t relate to the tragedy of his circumstances if he seems like an actual threat, like someone who might press the button.
A trickier, more daring movie would risk losing our sympathies, or at least undermine them by steeping us fully in the anger and dread felt by the hostages. Conversely, a more broadly satisfying one might embellish the facts some, milking the plot for bigger dramatic fireworks; you think those are coming when the late Michael K. Williams shows up in his final screen role, but his police-negotiator character is more voice of reason and sympathetic ear than worthy opponent. In the end, I wondered if 892 either needed to be a little more or a little less Hollywood. It neither subverts nor fully indulges the conventions of its subgenre, staying caught instead in some dead zone between juicy dramatic stakes and fuck-the-system rabble rousing.
There’s scarcely a trace of Hollywood in Speak No Evil—nor much in the way of explicit horror, for a long while anyway, despite the film’s appearance in the midnight lineup. While on family vacation in Tuscany, polite Danish couple Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Siem Koch) hit it off with the more open, adventurous Dutch couple Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders). One summer later, the latter invite the former to come visit their bucolic country home for a few days of rest and relaxation. “It would be impolite to decline,” a friend reasons, and so Bjørn and Louise take their new friends up on the offer, bringing along their young daughter (Liva Forsberg).
Ominous music teases, very early on, that danger is afoot. And there’s something vaguely unsettling about the relationship Patrick and Karin have with their own child (Marius Damslev), who doesn’t talk much. The brilliance of Speak No Evil is how it sharpens a regular complaint lobbed at horror movies—why don’t the characters trust their gut and get out of dodge quicker?—to a canny satirical point. What follows isn’t a brisk plunge into Chain Saw Massacre territory but a hellish weekend of intensifying social discomfort; Bjørn and Louise are confronted by a constantly compounding gauntlet of passive aggressive slights and faux pas, escalating steadily from a casual disregard for Louise’s dietary restrictions. The tension that looms over every scene comes down to a big question of propriety: How much are we willing to ignore or quietly put up with in the name of politesse?
Skillfully laying out a minefield of class and cultural differences, director and co-writer Christian Tafdrup gives the cringe comedies of Ruben Östlund a run for their squirmy money. If there’s something intrinsically Danish about Bjørn and Louise’s misguided acquiescence—their borderline absurdist refusal to protest or just leave—believe that every withering minute of Speak No Evil cut this particular Midwestern people pleaser to the quick. The film functions so brilliantly in its suspended state of should-we-stay-or-should-we-go that I was almost disappointed by how Tafdrup pays off all that mounting dread, even as I had to admire just how brutal the movie gets. Anyway, even if the true agony of a tricky social dilemma can’t hold forever (even if this thing has to go somewhere), there’s a wicked thematic logic to its grim endgame, when the film offers a pointed tweak to the motives of The Strangers and an exaggerated lesson on the consequences of holding your tongue.
This Sundance has gone unusually heavy on horror. As Katie pointed out in her last dispatch, artisanal thrillers are starting to outpace quirky dram-coms as the most expected kind of movie you’ll catch at the festival. If Speak No Evil is a horror movie that productively resists classification, Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny plays more like a promising drama that’s been forced against its will to double as a supernatural chiller. The plot concerns a Senegalese immigrant, Aisha (Anna Diop, from Titans and Jordan Peele’s Us), who begins looking after the daughter of a rich white family in New York, in hope of saving up enough money to bring her own kid over to America. Unfortunately, the unreasonable demands of the job start to get to her, and they’re soon complicated by dark visions of mythological evil encroaching on her waking life.
Nanny is beautifully shot by Rina Yang and well-acted, and it’s quite engrossing when focusing on the microaggressions that make Aisha’s life as an immigrant and caregiver so difficult—as in the scene where her employer, played by Michelle Monaghan, tries to draw a line of kinship between the two of them as women without acknowledging the vast chasm separating their respective privilege. As a horror movie, though, it’s generic and ineffectual, trotting out a lot of familiar smoke-and-mirrors hallucinations that aren’t half as scary as the mundane terrors the heroine faces.
Look, I’ve liked and even loved plenty of horror movies of the so-called “elevated” persuasion—especially ones, like past Sundance premiere Hereditary, that remember to be genuinely scary while meditating solemnly on grief and trauma and all that. But I’m also becoming concerned that we may be getting to a point where the only way to secure financing for a serious drama about, say, the experience of immigrants estranged from their own children while they care for someone else’s is to throw some ghosts or demons or mermaids in it. Nanny would be better off without a Babadook in its margins, though the buyers at A24 or Neon might disagree.