If you attend a lot of film festivals, one of the idiosyncratic and geeky pleasures is recognizing weird motifs that unintentionally connect very different films. This year’s Sundance appears to have a fascination with spiraling staircases and dead dogs — both fitting metaphors for my festival so far. Without knowing whether to go up or down, or just circle around, the up-stair battle of the Sundance lineup has only led to rotting dog carcasses of films.
The Free World (3/10) is the first feature by Jason Lew about a falsely accused convict who tries regain his bearings when he is let out of prison. Living in an empty condominium, Mohammed (Boyd Holbrook), who converted to Islam when he was locked up, has a vapid life: no friends, no social skills and no raison d’etre. Mohammed’s banal routine is interrupted when he finds Doris (Elizabeth Moss) with blood on the floor of the dog kennel where he works. He will take care of her, risking the potential of being arrested for another crime he didn’t commit.
Stilted, contrived, forced, awkward, preposterous, implausible, dumb, false, inauthentic and every other adjective that points to the unrecognized stupidity, The Free World is a film that pretends to be a quiet mood piece, where the dialogue, storytelling, and characterization are shrieked through the smokescreen of quiet and whistful delivery. Holbook’s performance tries to emulate the enigmatic coolness of Ryan Gosling’s screen persona without the subtlety of gestures that made Gosling’s Driver fascinating to study. Admittedly, the plotting — contrived in all of its major developments — and the pompous dialogue, which favors the screenwriter’s intentions over the believability of the characters, make it difficult to evaluate any of the miscast actors on their own. The Free World is a film about surrendering and liberation, that is always forceful and entrapping.
Wild (6.5/10), a little-known German film about a repressed office worker’s liberation after encountering a wolf in a forest, is somewhat similar in theme to The Free World, albeit completely different in terms of tone and plot. Featuring a crazy bestiality scene involving a wolf, period blood and some ferocious licking courtesy of said wolf, Wild is a pulpy and thin fairy tale that drags before it evolves into an anarchic releasing of its protagonists id and ultimately, the film’s suppressed B-movie core as well.
Once the woman abducts the wolf and houses it in her apartment, a romance spurts between the two. The wolf begins to lose its natural instincts and adapt to the comforts of the woman’s home. The introspection into the wolf as a character are slight, and the premise often feels like a short film stretched to feature length, but the sheer shocking and darkly comic power of the images are undeniable. Borrowing the formal language of sleazy erotica and high-brow social realism, Nicolette Krebitz finds a mode of expression that feels artsy and trashy, handling its examination of the threat barbaric desires pose to civilization with earnestness and a few winking flourishes. Wild is a walk on the wild side, for sure, including the lap dance sequence on a spiraling stair’s railing (of course), but one that works better as decent pulp than as a Freudian parable.
From a dog romance, to a romance film that is a dog, Ali And Nino (2/10) is the worst and most insufferable film of the festival so far. Asif Kapadia, who is the accomplished documentarian behind Senna and Amy, returns to narrative filmmaking with a movie devoid of any coherent narrative. Conflicts are dropped, events are implied rather than made explicit and motivations are incomprehensibly muddy.
Taking place before the First World War in Baku, a city that unites both Eastern and Western culture, Christianity and Islam, two lovers from wealthy and important families are torn apart by the war and a growing nationalist movement inside Azerbaijan. Coming from completely different worlds inside the same city, the simplistic love story hints at political commentary, a potential to comment on our still divided world. Incoherent in its pacing, editing and visual style, the film wastes all thematic potential as Ali And Nino never feels like a movie, but an incomplete storyboard missing frames, scenes and a central focus. It feels like a 90-minute trailer for a film I never want to see.
Belgica, one of the opening night films, had a stunning shot that circled at the bottom of a twisted stair to evoke an abstract unease. But The Free World and Wild use their labyrinthine steps for different effects, and to varying success, while Ali And Nino was twisted and confused enough already. I’ve been climbing; it’s got to go somewhere.
Tomorrow: Swiss Army Man, Wiener-Dog, Lo And Behold: Reveries Of The Connected World.