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Sundance #3: Role challenged Tunney

PARK CITY, Utah – Robin Tunney sits in the corner of an empty coffee house and smiles about the fact that her TV series “Prison Break” has made her recognizable everywhere she goes. “It’s not something I pursued, doing TV. I’ve been broke in my career, and that’s okay. I love doing indie films.”

I love seeing her in them, too. You may not have heard of “Niagara, Niagara” (best actress at Venice, 1997), and “Cherish” and “The Secret Lives of Dentists” (both 2002), but they were very good – especially “Cherish,” with Tunney under house arrest and wearing an ankle bracelet that will sound an alarm if she leaves her apartment – which she must do for reasons of diabolical precision.

Now here she is at Sundance in Mia Goldman’s “Open Window,” her most serious drama, and most challenging role. She plays a photographer happily engaged to Joel Edgerton, when a stranger breaks into her studio and rapes her. She is not quick to recover. She refuses to press charges, won’t talk about happened, retreats into depression and withdrawal. The movie is about the slow healing of her relationship.

“Revenge is silly except in Elizabethan drama,” she said. “To confront the rapist doesn’t heal anything. I like the way the movie allows her to be silent, to do nothing, to not really react for a long time.”

Tunney said she was surprised by how difficult the rape scene was: “I’m not an emotional person. I don’t cry, I’m pretty composed, but I just broke down and started crying and couldn’t stop, and finally had to go to a hospital for a sedative. It was embarrassing. But at least we got through it. Mia Goldman, the director, was the velvet knife: She got exactly what she wanted, but she asked for it in the best way.”

Tunney grew up in Chicago, graduated from the Chicago Academy of the Arts, is happy to be back home for “Prison Break,” which shoots around Chicago through March. She thinks a lot, she said, about how she’ll handle the next 20 years of her career: “Acting is so youth- driven, especially for women, who start doing crazy things to their faces. No woman enjoys getting older. In fact, a lot of old actors don’t seem very happy. I worked once with G. D. Spradlin, though, who was almost 80, and he told me an old actor is like an old hooker: You don’t like to do it anymore, but you’re flattered when you’re asked.”

* * *

It’s astonishing, the range of films you see here in a day. “Open Window” was quiet and intense and paid great attention to the emotional weather of the characters. In the morning I saw Julia Kwan’s luminous “Eve and the Fire Horse,” the only feature here from Canada, which tells the story of two young Chinese-Canadian sisters growing up in a family obsessed with good luck. One becomes a Christian, one becomes a Buddhist, and the scene everybody will remember is Jesus and Buddha dancing together in the Eng family living room, although I forgot to take notes on who was leading.

The film is about religion without being a religious film. It’s about how children ask each other profound questions, and supply answers that are admirably practical. This is not a children’s film, but a film about children, which allows them their own space and time and the freedom to think for themselves without being driven ahead by the plot. I was reminded of “Millions,” another film in which siblings confront the supernatural and don’t blink.

* * *

The big evening hit at the Eccles was Patrick Stettner’s “The Night Listener,” an eerie, Hitchcockian thriller starring Robin Williams as a gay late-night disk jockey whose publisher friend (Joe Morton) asks him to read a manuscript about a young boy (Rory Culkin) tortured by his parents and now dying of AIDS under the care of a foster mother in Wisconsin (Toni Collette).

The Williams character is depressed by the breakup of a long-term love affair, and gets involved by telephone in the life and death story of the boy. But the more he finds out, the more questions are raised, until the movie takes turns that no one in the audience can anticipate. The screenplay is by Armistead Maupin and Terry Anderson, based on Maupin’s novel, and is scary, fascinating, and elusive.

Williams pursues versions of reality in a series of events that grow nightmarish. This is a movie that ends more than once, in more than one way.

* * *

You see some unexpected moviegoers at Sundance. In the audience at “The Night Listener” was Rep. Rahm Emmanuel (D-Ill.), the Democratic

strategist: “We have four couples who come to the opening weekend of Sundance every year.” Did he say anything else? Only, “We’ll have another war right before the next election.” He seemed prepared to elaborate, but the lights were doing down and the ushers told us to take our seats.

* * *

In yesterday's report, I quoted a woman overheard at the shuttle bus stop predicting that the Sundance comedy hit "Little Miss Sunshine" would "sell for a lot of money." Today I add a conversation overheard at a screening: "I hear two numbers. Eight million, and ten million." Either one would be a Sundance record.

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