Toronto Dispatch: Sundown / Silent Night / Terrorizers
Michel Franco’s New Order was unfortunately one of my least favorite pieces at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, a movie that begins with stylish promise before devolving into sadistic emptiness for its own sake. Franco’s follow-up, Sundown, is a superior film, though that’s partially just because it works for longer — it seems as though the director just can’t help but succumb to wallowing in misery, even if he delays the inevitable for most of the film’s runtime. Tim Roth does what he can with a character that’s ultimately too much of a cypher — as a man who seems to have intentionally abandoned his family to remain on vacation in the middle of a crisis, we’re charmed enough by his presence to follow him around Acapulco while he does very little of anything, other than strike up a romance with a local woman (a very good Iazua Larios). It’s technically competent, well-shot and well-edited, but Franco refuses to let us in on the necessary information to understand anything about Roth’s character or any of the narrative machinations until it’s far too late for us to be anything but frustrated. Things do eventually click into place, but by that point there’s no emotional resonance to be had — nihilism infiltrates Franco’s work once again to diminished returns and renders the film a disappointment.
A lot of great films — and a lot of great comedies — have been made about shitty people. But if that’s the route you want to take as a filmmaker, you can’t lose sight of the fact that if you’re going to force your audience to spend time with unpleasant characters, you have to make those characters compelling, which is easier said than done. Silent Night, the feature debut from writer-director Camille Griffin, learns this lesson the hard way: an ostensible black comedy with an intriguing concept, the film surrounds us with characters so toxic and unbearable that you start checking your watch before the first act concludes. Which is a shame, since that means a talented cast — including Kiera Knightly, Matthew Goode, and Kirby Howell-Baptiste — is mostly wasted on rote material that feels like it’s trying to be edgy but mostly comes across as eye-rollingly smug. Griffin’s son, Roman Griffin Davis winds up faring the best, outshining most of the adults and proving that Jojo Rabbit wasn’t a fluke, but ultimately none of the emotion here feels earned and a few good jokes aren’t enough to salvage an admittedly fascinating speculative premise.
I wanted to love Terrorizers, a vaguely Rashomon-inspired treatise on violence, attachment, and disillusioned youth in modern-day Taipei, but Ho Wi Ding’s latest walks a little too close to the line between energetic and exhausting to truly transcend, despite its grand ambitions. The film begins with an out-of-nowhere attack on a woman in a train station by a man with a sword and rewinds from there, jumping around narratively as it follows several young adults whose romances, careers, and daily lives wind up coincidentally and not-so-coincidentally intertwined. There’s a fun, fractured element to the editing, with plenty of jumping back and forth but strong cohesion, a sense that things fall into place on time without leaving us unnecessarily confused — an impressive feat by Ho and co-editor Lee Huey as they grapple with a multi-faceted story. There’s a lot on offer in the screenplay by Ho and Natasha Sung as well, particularly when the writers’ eyes are trained on the sex industry, illuminating the question of agency and the notion of how audiences can and cannot separate fantasy from reality. But the overstuffed tale often finds itself spinning its wheels on its big ideas, ultimately opting for surface-level observations (the overarching theme basically boils down to “kids are too online these days”) in place of more nuanced examinations. That said, Terrorizers has too much style going for it to really write off — Ho knows how to develop atmosphere, utilizing shadows and rain and neon to their fullest extent, and his ensemble cast sells the interconnectivity the script relies on. Maybe you’d like to see more meat on the bone, but as it stands there’s plenty to chew on.