Toronto Review: The Survivor
“Oscar Bait” really isn’t a fair term most of the time, as the phrase seems to imply intentionality. There are exceptions, of course (or perhaps I’m merely naive), but I prefer to believe that the majority of filmmakers aren’t taking on projects first and foremost to win awards — that the possibility of doing so is simply a welcome secondary byproduct. That being said, the term does exist for a reason, as an effective — if often reductive — descriptor of the type of movie that feels guaranteed to appeal to the more risk-averse members of the various awards bodies: a film that despite weighty subject matter tends to be perfectly watchable, often with standout elements or performances, but whose capacity for true cinematic greatness is inevitably capped.
Barry Levinson’s The Survivor stands as a near-archetypal example of the sort of film described above: a fairly rote but still moving biographical portrait of a holocaust survivor yearning to find his former lover while struggling to live with the horrors he experienced, taking place in multiple time periods and anchored by a performance involving drastic physical transformation. Ben Foster stars as Harry Haft, a young Jewish man taken to Auschwitz during the Nazi invasion of Poland, where he is forced to fight other prisoners in life-or-death boxing matches for the amusement of their sadistic captors. After escaping he eventually makes a sort of life for himself in New York, but is consumed by the need to know what happened to the woman he loved back in Poland — he continues to box both because he doesn’t know what else to do and for the possibility that if he generates enough publicity his love might be able to find him.
Foster’s performance is fairly undeniable. The actor has historically been prone to dialing it up a notch too far, and the best thespians have been buried under the intensity of extreme weight loss and gain, but his work here goes far beyond merely changing his appearance. He ages convincingly across the film’s three distinct time periods via his physicality and expressiveness alone, and portrays the emotional burdens of a broken man in ways that elevate what’s on the page. His scenes with a very good Vicky Krieps are especially evocative, even if she’s given less to do than you might like — it’s Haft’s story, and therefore Foster’s, but you can’t help feel like a cast that includes the likes of Danny DeVito, Peter Sarsgaard, and John Leguizamo is ultimately given short shrift.
As might be expected, it’s the behind the camera elements that aren’t quite up to the task. The screenplay by Justine Juel Gillmer often sinks under the weight of heavy-handed dialogue, and the narrative mechanism Levinson uses to set up each of the numerous flashback sequences call to mind Slumdog Millionaire and feel contrived at best, creating a jarring dissonance that preemptively undermines the scenes of atrocities that follow. That said, the film is technically sound if not spectacular (with the exception of a delicate and haunting score by Hans Zimmer that’s among the best of the year so far), and Levinson and Gillmer manage to stick the landing with an unexpected and understated third act. The Survivor may fall prey to many of the least appealing Oscar Bait tropes, but it has its moments of real humanity as well, and while it may not deserve much in the way of awards, those small moments are worth celebrating in their own right.