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TIFF 2017. Correspondences #11

Paul Schrader's "First Reformed," Lucrecia Martel's "Zama" and S. Craig Zahler's "Brawl in Cell Block 99" provide three superb TIFF shocks.
Caro Danny,
I share your admiration for First Reformed, certainly one of the best films I’ve seen at this year’s TIFF and Paul Schrader’s most concentrated work in ages. From the very first shot—an adagio dolly-in on a severely framed chapel—we’re in familiar territory for the veteran filmmaker, yet in the presence of a fierce new lucidity. “Even a pastor needs pastoring,” someone tells the ecclesiastical protagonist (Ethan Hawke, harrowed like one of Beckett’s aged photographs), but his midnight-of-the-soul juncture is something he must sort through alone. Contemplating the paltry church attendance from the pulpit, grimacing at other people’s earthy jokes, and growing agitated at the planet’s ecological ruination, he struggles with a cancerous body and a nauseous soul. Still, the feeling is not one of hopelessness, due to the priest’s stirrings of resolve and desire and also to Schrader’s stylistic vehemence, a balance of asceticism and voluptuousness and anguish and ecstasy that he’s been distilling since Blue Collar. Since I’ve seen it, I haven’t been to stop thinking about some of First Reformed’s images: The explosives under the cassock, Amanda Seyfried’s tresses tumbling over Hawke’s face, a glass of whiskey and Pepto-Bismol that, with its swirling browns and pinks in close-up, evokes a churning cosmos. (A shot from Taxi Driver and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her that, as you mentioned, becomes Schrader’s own.) Cracked with awe and terror, this is a cry from a director who never forgot that cinema, to quote one of Hawke’s musings, is “a form of prayer.”
Familiar terrain and purified approach is also the case with Zama, the first feature film in nearly a decade from the singular Argentine auteur Lucrecia Martel. If First Reformed is an ashen Whistler, here is a Carlos Morel canvas whose hues often seem like the woozy spots imagined during a fever. In the introductory vista, a man in full colonial regalia stands by the edge of a river, suspended between grayish water and crumbly hills; next seen, the lanky, saturnine fellow (the eponymous protagonist, it turns out, a functionary of the Spanish Crown played by Daniel Giménez Cacho) is rubbing himself at the sight of a group of native women smearing mud on their skin. Paraguay at the end of the 18th-century is the setting, and the newly arrived Don Zama already can’t wait to leave it. Humid under their fussy white perukes, stiffly greeting each other with cheek kisses, the Spaniards are both oppressors and clueless sightseers in this New World. From the fumbled seduction of a teasing local beauty (Lola Dueñas) to a denied transfer from the governor, the glum bureaucrat stumbles from one indignity to the next. Demoted to a fetid, possibly haunted inn, he finds himself pushed further into the Gran Chaco bushland where an elusive outlaw roams mythically. Eager to abandon the land, Zama instead sinks deep into it as if wadding through quicksand.
What a fiend Martel is with her camera! Adapting Antonio di Benedetto’s existential 1956 novel, she stresses the primary of the visual via a procession of astoundingly intricate and eccentric compositions. (Rui Poças, a favorite of Miguel Gomes and João Pedro Rodrigues, did the cinematography.) The chained back of an indigenous prisoner surrounded by officious figures whose heads have been cut off by the top of the frame. Three willowy sisters circling their turned-away father in a lithe almost-dance inside a dark-wood inn chamber. A flirty noblewoman’s makeshift sanctuary of veils and hammocks, a tableau of perfumed clamminess scored to the creaking sound of a slave’s bored fanning. I could go on describing such prodigies for the whole paragraph, Danny. As in Martel’s previous films, there’s the contradictory feeling of the senses being stimulated within an atmosphere of drowsiness. Time is brought to a standstill, then it’s as if whole years have passed. Backgrounds are enhanced with out-of-focus parasols, doors held ajar to reveal distant activity, and, in a reminder of just how droll this stalled epic is, a llama will poke its head into a scene. In the middle of all this is Zama himself, his stateliness dissolving equally in cramped interiors and sweeping landscapes. It’s a fitting paradox here that the film that most feels like a dream is also the one that most makes me feel wide awake.
It seems perverse to place the barbarous pulp of Brawl in Cell Block 99 alongside the grave contemplation of First Reformed and Zama, yet S. Craig Zahler’s follow-up to his western-horror Bone Tomahawk displays a no less lucid and rigorous vision of hell than those films. Its corkscrew descent follows a towering bullethead (Vince Vaughn, excellently trading his usual motormouth for a deadpan glower) from struggling prole to moneyed drug runner to captive in an increasingly medieval series of penitentiaries. It’s a clenched-fist apocalypse, but it earns its blunt shocks with a patient buildup brimming with scrupulous detail and, bizarrely, poignancy. Early on, Vaughn’s bruiser demolishes a car in a rage over his wife’s (Jennifer Carpenter) unfaithfulness, then goes home with bloody knuckles to talk to her and earnestly attempt to save their marriage. Later, her life and that of their unborn daughter become his solitary lighthouses in the infernal catacombs, where dandified tyrants hold sway and craniums are squashed with alarming frequency. A grindhouse baroquist worthy of the late, great Tobe Hooper, Zahler excels at purple tough-guy prose (“Gimme a reason to turn your face into a cocktail”), scabrous sketching (Don Johnson and Udo Kier both contribute loathsome vividness), oddball frames charged with Pedro Costa-type stillness, and a genre lunacy that he has to courage to push to its extremes. May his career be a bloody long one.
I stepped out of each of these three in a daze, Danny. Shaken and febrile and giddy at being alive and surrounded by movies. Hope your viewings have been as traumatically thrilling.
Warmly,
Fern

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