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Toronto: Correspondences #7 – Challenging Genres

"Tetsuo" director Shin'ya Tsukamoto makes a samurai film with "Killing" and Steve McQueen follows "12 Years a Slave" with "Widows."
The Notebook is covering TIFF with an on-going correspondence between critics Kelley Dong and Daniel Kasman.
Killing
Dear Kelley,
You have found two of the better films at the festival for sure—I am also struggling a bit to find the impressive amongst the uneven, broken, just plain dull or, worst of all, irresponsible. Of course, Barry Jenkins' film is none of these things, but rather a warm hug of a film, one that recognizes the inequities of American society for black Americans and counters it not just with love in its story, but love in its form. For Jenkins clearly is, three movies in, a director of love: love for actors, for characters, and ultimately for the people evoked through the coaxing of the latter from the former. If Beale Street Could Tak is coated in a balm of compassion, one so enveloping that it threatens to render the film too nice, it’s characters too kind, flawless, unimpeachable. It's hard to argue against such an approach, but then again perhaps that's the problem: such an approach makes the film difficult to argue over. I think we can agree—it is lovely, it's for the right things—but disagreement is the sign of a complex film, and I might choose High Life's beguiling unevenness as a more seductively provocative viewing experience, betraying expectations, challenging norms, and leaving us bewildered but thrilled. Oh, and it has one of the best sex scenes set to film—Juliette Binoche in the "Fuck Box," like something from a horny and desperate Philippe Grandrieux film—and ends with Robert Pattinson singing over a Stuart A. Staples track. One film is set in the past and the other the future, but both certainly are about finding tenderness right here and right now, with another loving body.
One of the (many) reasons I was particularly excited about the sci-fi High Life is that while I may go to film festivals to predominantly see art cinema, not so secretly I’m always looking for an excuse to see good genre fare. So when I heard that Shin'ya Tsukamoto, the Japanese director of the cult classic Tetsuo: The Iron Man, has finally made a samurai film...well, be still my beating heart.
Killing is a lean and mean—and not a little funny—chanbara with the spartan, DIY mise en scène common to this great gonzo director who shoots, edits, writes, and stars in the film. It spends a fleet runtime with a single idea in mind: to expose and break the conventions of the genre, pushing them to extremity. Set vaguely in the 19th century, it opens in a small village with a friendly masterless samurai, Mokunoshin Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu), living among the farmers and sparring with a local youth in a tranquility so bare that the main tension is the unfulfilled sexual desire between the swordsman and a local farmer’s daughter (Yu Aoi)—one of the first signs of Tsukamoto’s wry counter of expectations, having the kind ronin furiously masturbating each night. Into this bare setting comes the older Jirozaemon Sawamura (Tsukamoto), another masterless samurai, who defeats a man in a duel, sees Tsuzuki sparring, and unexpectedly invites him and his young protege to Edo for a vague mission. In his solitary appearance and shabby kimono, Sawamura’s proposition hardly seems plausible, but no matter—when a gang of ruffians show up outside the town it’s time to use all their skills to protect the farmers.
Or so you’d think, for Tsukamoto rapidly deflates this expectation, showing Tsuzuki as a samurai afraid to kill. Sawamura instead takes care of business, but the film elides two major fights from Tsuzuki’s view and ours—the young ronin faints and further postpones the mission to Edo. This all eventually brings Tsuzuki into conflict with Sawamura over his trepidation to use his sword, a fear which is representative of the whole film’s wryly stunted evolution. This tension between youth and master wonderfully devolves into a primal climb up a forest mountain, Tsuzuki fleeing, Sawamura chasing him, and the young woman chasing them both, all injured, bleeding and desperate for satisfaction in ways none could articulate and perhaps the story neither—they simply long for culmination after being held in the film’s odd, abstracted limbo of a genre film. It’s a film too quick and tenacious to revel in much detail, for the trappings of the period and the extent of the story world are but a skin to a cinematic animal wholly concerned with undercutting the heroism that Tsukamoto sees as ingrained in samurai cinema. Those coming for a conventional genre film might be disappointed, but those who revel in a fierce gesture of pure cinema will leave sated.
While Killing embraces its genre to strip it down, laying bare its empty, screaming soul, Steve McQueen’s Widows stumbles from one genre to another, refusing to take a position on just what of kind of film it is nor embracing a raucous mix. I have no idea what the 1980s British TV series it is based on is like, but McQueen’s adaptation, co-written with Gone Girl and Sharp Objects novelist and screenwriter Gillian Flynn, has the glorious potential of a pulp epic. A group of widows fiercely led by Viola Davis (the others are Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki) unites to settle an immense debt incurred by their criminal husbands after they’ve been killed by the police while robbing a Chicago gang. To solve this dilemma, they decide to finish a job the gang leader (Liam Neeson) was planning, in what could be a clever feminist revision of the heist genre. Each woman is also going through her own grieving process, so the story could also be a melodrama revealing these woman’s marriages posthumously through their different kinds anguish and how they economically have to make due. Finally, there’s a storyline that weaves between these, of the son (Colin Farrell, always a game cad) of an old guard Irish political dynasty trying to superficially break from his father’s (Robert Duvall) legacy founded on graft and racism, but running against a African American newcomer (Brian Tyree Henry) in a predominantly black neighborhood. And it was this man’s money that was stolen, for he is in fact still running the neighborhood through his gang.
This story isn’t so much sprawling as it is meaty, each component packed rich with themes of gender empowerment, cross-class and cross-cultural grief, economic uncertainty, nepotism and hypocritical progressive politics, and much more. But these register in broad strokes only, for McQueen isn’t interested in the storytelling required to deftly cut between these lines of plot. The opening sequence, in which the husbands' botched heist is intercut with flashback introductions intended to typify each woman’s marriage, is awkward and imprecise rather than efficient and intriguing. Despite a superficial pretense to treating each character with a non-caricatured realism, few of the lives or lifestyles sustain much scrutiny, the film juggling too much to build the kind of serious characters the emotional and moral beats ask for.
This would be fine if Widows was truly pulp, embracing a lean, quicker, angrier, archetypal and perhaps more lurid approach that allowed the betrayals and comeuppance to thrill, the political points scored with brash directness. A shockingly staccato flashback that reveals the death of one of the women’s sons was at the hands of trigger-happy police showcases a style of confrontational bluntness the film could have embraced. Instead, Widows hedges, trying to be serious about all things but neither having the time nor, surprisingly, the aptitude to build its story’s tapestry of love, gender, class, race, crime, and politics. Another scene thrills with its bold form: the white politician takes a car ride from a speech in a poor neighborhood and drives in real time to his campaign headquarters. The camera is strapped to the car hood facing one side of the street and as we listen to his bellyaching about the campaign from inside the car we see the poor area pass by, and when the buildings start getting bigger and fancier, the camera pans to the other side of the vehicle, revealing more wealth as he gets out and enters his mansion. Audacious and brilliant, this moment embraces a conceptual and analytic art house style that carves ideas with the camera—another approach generally missing from the film, as are the more realist nuances of the characters, or the archetypes and playful conventions of good genre moviemaking. In the move from the larger storytelling canvas of a television series, this bold film mostly seems suggestive rather than successful. Frustratingly, while Widows just had its premiere it’s already ripe for a remake.
Warmly,
Danny

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