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Toronto 2013, Day Four: Sunday brings follies, none more disappointing than Devil's Knot

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After getting shut out of the opening night of Midnight Madness, TIFF’s witching-hour slate of proudly disreputable counter-programming, I’ve yet to make a second attempt to brave the rowdy, late-night crowds at the Ryerson Theatre. Yet a part of me truly wishes I had been there Saturday night when Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno (Grade: D) premiered before a full theater of genre fans, if only to see how the hungry hordes would swallow this rancid slab of meat. The other part of me wishes I hadn’t even bothered with the film at all. Given his oft-professed admiration for the infamous 1980 gut-muncher Cannibal Holocaust—whose Italian director, Ruggero Deodato, makes a cameo in Hostel: Part II—it was only a matter of time before Roth took a stab at reviving the cannibal subgenre. The best that can be said for his attempt is that it occasionally approaches the repellant outrageousness of its ancestors; there’s at least one setpiece here gruesome enough to send the faint of heart and weak of stomach running for the exits.

Yet Roth remains a one-trick pony. The Green Inferno isn’t so much a step in a new direction as a fancy redressing of the same movie he’s been making, over and over again, since he got into the grindhouse game. Every Roth feature—including Cabin Fever, the two Hostel movies, this year’s Aftershock (which he co-wrote and stars in, but didn’t direct), and now his new one—operates in exactly the same way: A group of insensitive Americans dares to leave the comfort of their upper middle-class bubble and is horrifically punished for doing so. In this case, the heroes/victims are a group of activist students traveling to the deepest reaches of the Peruvian jungle to save an indigenous tribe from a lawless, uncaring lumber company. Because this is a Roth joint, in which all exotic foreign lands are death traps for Yankee tourists, the kids wind up in the clutches of the very natives they were trying to protect. Bon appétit.

For sheer shock value, there is, again, one moment of nightmarish Grand Guignol carnage, which I suppose makes this required viewing for gore-hound completists. Yet once that nasty “highlight” has come and gone, Roth fails to sustain the intensity level. He keeps backsliding into lowbrow comic high jinks: a scatological accident, a “Scooby Doo plan” involving a hidden bag of marijuana. The film’s politics are muddled beyond recognition. Roth may think he’s skewering the false altruism of young rabble-rousers, but just as Hostel basically warned its audience to never leave the country, The Green Inferno imparts the charming message that getting involved in causes is for suckers and phonies. ( “Activism is so fucking gay,” one eye-rolling coed says in the opening act—and given that she doesn’t end up on the menu, I’m inclined to think that Roth agrees.) Merely tiresome for most of its running time, the film teeters into vileness with the late (and very real) threat of female genital mutilation. Deodato is probably beaming with pride, though he might also be scoffing at the lack of animal slaughter; Roth will have to try harder to reach Cannibal Holocaust levels of depravity. Count me out of his future attempts.


Genre thrills of a much tamer, more virtuosic variety arrived in the form of Gravity (Grade: B-), which proves what the Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuarón can do with an enormous budget—and also that he may need a better writing partner than his son, Jonás. There are loads of event movies set in the terrifying vacuum of space, but few that actually maroon their characters outside in the vast, unforgiving darkness. Gravity does just that, casting George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as astronauts stranded in zero-g when their ride is wrecked by satellite debris. It’s a terrifically elemental premise for a movie, one that Cuarón treats as an excuse to indulge in some truly spectacular eye candy; his famously epic tracking shots move here on all axes, making the film a pretty remarkable technical exercise—even as a few of the sequences, especially those that adopt a through-the-helmet POV, suggest the experience of watching someone else play an FPS.

Cuarón’s camera may seem weightless, floating as it does through the digital cosmos, but his clunky dialogue weighs Gravity down. Were the film as all-action, little-talk as Kubrick’s 2001—a milestone impossible not to think of when watching ships and humans dance balletically through the silence of space—one could take it as a pure sensory experience. But Cuarón fills the dead silence with lots of painful banter, while also providing Bullock—an actress ill-equipped to star in what is essentially a twofer—with a pained backstory that’s meant to lend the action a psychological bent. All it really does is give the characters too much to gab about. “The silence, ” Bullock replies when Clooney asks her what she’ll miss about space. “I could get used to it.” The audience may relate.


For her follow-up to the audacious documentary The Arbor, British filmmaker Clio Barnard delivers The Selfish Giant (Grade: B), a tough, sparse saga of hardscrabble youth. Loosely based on a short story of the same name by Oscar Wilde, the film follows a pair of kids (profane troublemaker Conner Chapman and soft-spoken sidekick Shaun Thomas) as they burn the daylight hours cutting class, selling stolen copper for a quick buck, and horsing around (in that they literally ride horses.) Nothing much happens, until something does; in mores ways than one, the last act is a shocker. The Selfish Giant feels minor, especially compared to the more conceptually daring The Arbor, but it has an authentic sense of environment.

The same can be said, perhaps, about The Grand Seduction (Grade: C+), which is neither grand nor seductive, but nevertheless had no trouble selling out the enormous Roy Thomson Hall for its premiere last night. The film’s Canadian director, Don McKellar, made a fine film called Last Night 15 years ago, to which this new effort bares no resemblance. A harmless, occasionally amusing addition to a genre I generally despise, the film features Brendan Gleeson as the mayor of a one-horse (one-boat?) harbor and Taylor Kitsch as the hunky Doc Hollywood type he has to convince to stay. More amusing than the movie was its helmer, who quipped wildly during his introductory remarks. At TIFF, it was nice to see a Canadian director earn a warm welcome, even if the film he was there with wasn’t exactly a game changer. —A.A. Dowd

Every Toronto Film Fest finds a few major filmmakers firing wide of the mark, but they don’t always do it back to back. Sunday brought an abundance of ambitious follies—some more endearing than others, but all stridently off, either through willed eccentricity or simply poor execution.

Matthew Weiner’s You Are Here (Grade: C) probably came in with the highest expectations of the bunch, given that it’s the Mad Men creator’s first theatrical feature. It turns out he has an inner Dick Whitman, who secretly longed to make a maladroit farm comedy with Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis. Wilson stars as an alcoholic Annapolis weatherman who helps his bipolar best friend (Galifianakis) through the squabble that ensues after the latter’s father dies, leaving the ne’er-do-well son with the bulk of the inheritance and his shrewish sister (Amy Poehler) without valuable family land or their father’s store. Also in the mix is the dead man’s much younger, hippy-dippy widow (Laura Ramsey), Galifianakis’s stepmother. She soon becomes the object of Wilson’s affections, to which she’s surprisingly receptive, considering she’s just lost her husband.


You Are Here is said to be a personal project—in the works for the better part of a decade—and it has all the earmarks of a screenplay that Weiner kept in a back drawer for years until he suddenly had the means to get it off the ground. The emphasis on keeping characters flawed, through unexpected betrayals and reconciliations, is admirable. But what transpires never convinces as actual human behavior, particularly with regard to Galifianakis’s mental illness or Ramsey’s romantic whims. The comic timing is also consistently terrible, so much so that one wonders if the arrhythmic line readings are deliberate. Weiner is entitled to an occasional washout, though the quirkathon that is You Are Here is not so much bad as it is baffling.

As a writer and director, John Turturro also seems to have taken leave of Planet Earth. Fading Gigolo (Grade: B-) garnered advance word not only for the rare feat of getting Woody Allen to act in a film he didn’t direct, but for casting him as a pimp. The buzz was slightly misleading: He’s a hapless, amateur pimp—a bookstore owner who impulsively decides his florist friend (John Turturro) is suave enough to help him make a little money on the side. After first setting this budding escort up with a doctor (Sharon Stone) and her friend (Sofía Vergara), Allen eventually hazards that Turturro’s services might do wonders for—yes—a Hasidic widow (Vanessa Paradis), whose sudden visits to Manhattan stoke the ire of a lovelorn Orthodox cop (Liev Schreiber).


If you can accept the ethnic roundelay, Fading Gigolo is, in its own Martian way, a pretty tender film about loneliness and the need for human connection. And if you can set aside the blithe treatment of sex work or the borderline-offensive caricaturing of the Hasidic community—a scene of Allen being called before a council of rabbis veers into questionable territory—there’s a delicacy to the dynamic between Turturro and Paradis that’s endearing despite the pairing’s ludicrousness. As for the casting gambit, it’s not as outlandish as it sounds. Allen is just playing a version of the Woody Allen character—awkward, embarrassed, unflappably self-righteous in his goals. The results are not all that dissimilar from his work in Mighty Aphrodite (1995).

It wasn’t even the least convincing role-playing of the day. I’ve seen all four major documentaries on the West Memphis Three (the Paradise Lost trilogy and the separate West Of Memphis); interviewed directors Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, and Amy Berg, and even one of the Three, Damien Echols; and weighed in on the filmmakers’ dispute over access. All of which is to say that I now have strong preconceptions about the case and the way it’s been depicted onscreen, as well as the potential effectiveness of any dramatization of the material. Still, that doesn’t explain the exasperating anti-verisimilitude of Devil’s Knot (Grade: D), Atom Egoyan’s unfocused and inert adaptation of Mara Leveritt’s book on the case.


Considering how much actual footage the movie had to work from, the most shocking thing about Devil’s Knot is how cruddy it looks. Grungy, cluttered homes have been replaced with posh suburban sets. The TV-movie aesthetics extend to the casting, with glamorous actors playing parts they can’t hope to imbue with the vividness and intensity we’ve seen in the non-fiction films. Alessandro Nivola mostly just scowls as Terry Hobbs, whose wife, Pam (Reese Witherspoon), serves as the movie’s emotional fulcrum, while firebrand John Mark Byers (Kevin Durand) comes across as far less demonstrative than his real-life counterpart. It would be easy to grant Devil’s Knot some license if it were anything but straightforward—indeed, the fragmented approach of Egoyan’s great The Sweet Hereafter (1997) might have been ideal. But the film’s ambitions and execution are on a par with those of Drew Peterson: Untouchable, as courtroom scenes actually shown in 1996’s Paradise Lost are re-enacted with the urgency of high school theater. While the film does go its own way on a couple of fronts—playing up the Mr. Bojangles theory—anyone who’s seen the documentaries will be hopelessly distracted. Those who watch it as a first exposure to the case won’t even be getting a digest of a digest.

In the realm of non-follies: Daniel Schechter’s Life Of Crime (Grade: B), adapted from Elmore Leonard’s 1978 novel The Switch, was a palate cleanser for the day. More stylish directors have tackled the late author’s work, but there’s still a plenty of fun to be had in this swift-paced, Detroit-set kidnapping story. Mos Def offers a more subdued take on Ordell Robie than Samuel L. Jackson did in Jackie Brown (adapted from Leonard’s much-later Rum Punch); John Hawkes does wonderfully subtle work as Louis Gara; Jennifer Aniston puts in a rare darker turn as the socialite they hold for ransom; and Tim Robbins is enjoyably sleazy as her husband.


An outlier for the day, Corneliu Porumboiu’s unfortunately titled When Evening Falls On Bucharest Or Metabolism (Grade: C+) opens with a long take of a director (Bogdan Dumitrache) driving with his actress (Diana Avramut). They discuss the nude scene they’re about to film, as well as the restrictions of working with 35mm celluloid, which can never capture a take longer than 11 minutes. Sure enough, the elaborately self-reflexive When Evening Falls is composed almost exclusively of long takes, and it employs a structure (stretches of not much happening alternating with semantic arguments) that’s of a piece with Porumboiu’s 12:08 East Of Bucharest (2006) and Police, Adjective (2009). That method is getting a little tired, though, and adding a bit of endoscopy footage—the “metabolism” of the title—doesn’t qualify as a cinematic coup. —Ben Kenigsberg