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TIFF 2017. Correspondences #13

A look at "Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri," "Bodied" and "Scaffold" conclude our critics' correspondence for this year's TIFF.
Dear Danny,
We blinked, and ten days passed. How swiftly time goes by when in festival mode, just floating on films and friends. It’s not until I’m on the way home, writing my final dispatch in between airport terminals, that I realize how tremendously exhausted I am. A good time, then, to be reflecting on Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, quite the strong cup of black coffee. As a non-fan of In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012), I was pleasantly surprised by the grim comic force of Martin McDonagh’s morality tale, a Southern Gothic hamlet pushed through the filter of British Catholic guilt. The eponymous placards are positioned on a dilapidated road and painted red with a confrontational query, part of the crusade waged by the grieving Mildred (Frances McDormand) against the local lawmakers who’ve failed to locate the man behind her daughter’s rape and murder. A steamroller in faded jumpsuits, she keeps at her single-minded pursuit while bumping into disapproving townsfolk, most notably a sheriff (Woody Harrelson) with his own pain to deal with and a brutally bigoted clod of an officer (Sam Rockwell). The title evokes Brecht and somebody reads Flannery O’Connor, though the steady unfolding of backstories and the cozily “complicating” revelation of character land it closer to Prestige TV land. What McDonagh lacks in visual eloquence he makes up in thorny performances and staccato prose, with the occasional searing moment that stitches all elements together—a bout between McDormand and Harrelson suddenly brought to a halt by a cancerous cough that leaves a face speckled with blood and loquacious enemies in silent solidarity.
“Silent” is not a tag to be used anywhere near Joseph Kahn’s riotous Bodied, where words come flying off the screen like shrapnel. The bare-knuckle vaudeville of rap battles is the setting, an arena for wordsmiths to dismantle each other—the more racist and misogynistic and homophobic, the better. Into it wanders the pale dweeb (Calum Worthy), a towheaded chipmunk out for research (his thesis is naturally titled “The Poetic Functions of the N-Word in Battle Rap”) who discovers his own unlikely virtuosity in the underground field. Split between the tofu-munchers of Berkeley and the hyperbolic insult-bards of Oakland, he falls in with a multiracial posse led by a black rapper (Jackie Long) whose savage rhymes cloak family-man thoughtfulness. “Let’s just try to have a culturally enriching experience.” A seasoned engineer of music-video flash, Kahn has a slash-and-burn satirical side that hungers to smash the glossy pop surfaces he fashions. (Think of the James Toback of Black and White possessing the body of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.) In this roiling, unwieldy, barbed, very 2017 provocation, he walks a very slender line between the inquisitive and the obnoxious, between interrogating a “woke” dunce’s privilege and grooving in the outlaw thrills of his newfound persona. The gleeful approach is too scattershot, and there’s a centrist, offend-everybody-to-offend-nobody streak that would make Trey Parker proud. However, in scenes like an unexpectedly poignant showdown where two friends hurl stereotypes at themselves to avoid hurling them at each other, Bodied strikes beyond its parodic Instagram veneer and draws blood.
I know it’s already been covered by you back in Locarno, Danny, and also by Michael Sicinski in his Wavelengths coverage. Still, I would like to close with a word or two about Scaffold, mainly because Kazik Radwanski’s affecting short captures a lot of what I love about my sojourns in Toronto. Namely, a feeling of sunny suspension, a discombobulation of new spaces filled surprisingly, warmly. The first shot finds a gloved hand entering a vacant screen from above and pulling up a ladder. After the indelible faces of the protagonists in Tower (2012) and How Heavy This Hammer (2015), Radwanski here works with disembodied limbs and voices, always busy and often yearning. The “protagonists” are two unseen Bosnian laborers, the “drama” is a flowerpot broken and replaced. In crisp close-ups, we see work done with crowbars, drillers, paintbrushes and brooms. Gazing out the window they’re repairing, the men observe an elderly neighbor in his garden and a boy “like Harry Potter” rollerskating from side to side. Break time brings coffee and milk and a message from home, horses galloping on a cellphone screen that’s promptly dropped and shattered. Simply described, the approach suggests the dourly ominous early sessions of Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent, when in reality Scaffold’s sneaky playfulness is more like the outsider’s comedy of Jerzy Skolimowski’s Moonlighting compressed into fifteen minutes. Its closing view of cheering strangers and fresh vantage points is the Toronto I happily keep coming back to year after year.
Safe travels until then, my friend.
Warmly,
Fern

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