TIFF is often a home for potential Oscar contenders and celebrities who look great on a red carpet but there’s another thing that’s easy to find every year in Canada: very serious subject matter. A trio of films that premiered there this year work with themes of survival, trauma, abuse, school shootings, and much more. It’s all very intense stuff, but it’s all also largely mishandled and manipulative, to varying degrees. Two of these films will have fans purely because of the commitment of their talented stars, while the third buries its lead in the worst script I’ve seen put to film this year.
Thirty years ago, TIFF would have instantly turned Barry Levinson’s “The Survivor” into an Oscar contender. It has an Oscar-winning director, a true story, a serious subject matter, and a performer who transformed his body to play the lead role (the Academy loves that). Times have changed and I suspect Levinson’s deeply personal project won’t make those kind of waves (although I could be wrong). It has nothing to do with the commitment of its leading man, doing some of the best work of his notable career, but the fact is that even Academy voters have grown more aware of the tropes of Oscar bait (“Green Book” excepted). “The Survivor” unfolds with almost zero artistry, telling a true story that has inherent power but doing it with an alarming lack of subtlety and nuance, almost as if it’s going for that statue instead of a greater art.
Ben Foster lost and gained dozens of pounds to play Harry Haft, a boxer in the ‘40s who was literally billed on posters and by announcers as “The Survivor of Auschwitz!” He’s introduced after the war, encouraging his manager to get him a high-profile fight with Rocky Marciano. It’s not that Harry thinks he can beat the champ—it’s that he wants his name and face in as many papers across the country as possible. The hope is that a missing loved one will see it. At the same time, a woman (Vicky Krieps) who has dedicated her life to such reunions befriends the deeply traumatized Haft.
How did he survive? He boxed at Auschwitz. In black-and-white flashbacks, Levinson reveals how Harry became the pet project of an SS officer (Billy Magnussen), who forced him to fight fellow prisoners to the death. Harry would win the fight and his opponent would be shot. It’s unimaginably cruel and vicious. And when Harry’s history comes out in a news story (by a reporter played by Peter Sarsgaard), his community rejects him. He keeps fighting. It’s all he can do.
How do you keep moving through such incredible trauma and guilt? Foster does an incredible job of allowing that historic pain to seep into every one of Harry’s bones and muscles. It’s in his body language and his eyes—the way he carries himself outside the ring and even how he almost seems to punch with panic behind it. It's a fantastic performance.
The shame is that such dedicated work is in a film that almost defiantly refuses any sort of nuance. It’s one of those projects that is constantly spelling out its themes through unrealistic dialogue. We don’t need a character who says, “If I could cut every memory from my head, I would.” We know that. It’s a film in which everyone is too often saying what they’re thinking and feeling, becoming way more interesting in its quieter moments, a downcast look from Foster or a sympathetic one from Krieps. They’re great performers—I just wished “The Survivor” wrapped a film around them that lived up to their abilities.
There’s a similar sense that solid performances are getting buried in lackluster filmmaking that pervades Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s disappointing family drama “Montana Story.” Two excellent young performers hold enough of it together, but a languid pace that feels almost designed to mimic the speed of life in Big Sky Country goes too far, leading to a film that drifts with the wind instead of driving home its emotional undercurrents.
Owen Teague (the recent version of “The Stand”) plays Cal Thorne, a young man who returns home from Cheyenne to the heart of Montana to basically say goodbye to his dying father Wade. Strapped into machines at his own ranch, the only people left around Wade are his longtime employee Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero) and his wise nurse Ace (Gilbert Owuor), who tells Cal that Wade has no more story left to tell. All of his chapters are written.
However, the same isn’t true for Cal or his sister Erin (Haley Lu Richardson), who comes home for the first time in seven years. The film takes too long to reveal why Erin was estranged from Cal and Wade, but it comes back to an abusive past, including one particular incident that divided siblings forever. “Montana Story” is basically about using a death of a father to heal the wounds he caused in the first place. Teague and Richardson don’t strike a single false note, but McGehee and Siegel allow their storytelling to meander across this dusty land, withholding aspects of their past instead of really allowing to breathe as characters. These two young performers are the kind who will likely win awards someday, but not for this one.
A veteran performer who should know better is Naomi Watts, star of Phillip Noyce’s “Lakewood,” one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen in my years of TIFF coverage. Stunningly incompetent when it’s not being offensively exploitative, this is an infuriating film, one that has the nerve to suggest that what it really takes to stop school shootings is attentive mothers before arriving at a coda that’s arguably even more offensive than that, if you can believe it. For a movie to use our current national nightmare of school shootings as a framework for a thriller requires a deft hand that understands the crisis without exploiting it—this ain’t it.
Chris Sparling, the writer of “Buried,” clearly set out to produce another actor’s exercise in this story of Amy Carr (Watts), a mother who goes for an ordinary jog on a very extraordinary day. She gets a call that there’s an active shooter at her son’s school. Rather than jog home, she’s far enough that she tries to run to the school, making calls along the way. She contacts the auto body shop across the street. She gets through to a 911 operator who tries to calm her. Before long, she’s talking to an officer who has some questions about her son that are unsettling. All the while, she’s running. Can a great actress deliver a great performance while jogging? She sure can try, and Watts definitely emotes through exasperated breathing.
Noyce surrounds her with every trick in the book like overheated music and shaky camera angles, and the whole thing gets exhausting before it gets ridiculous. As a parent with children who go through lockdown drills all the time, “Lakewood” made me angry. It’s not just a feeling that the national tragedy of the death of children should be treated with more respect and nuance but the sense that no one involved here ever even considered how to handle the topic other than to use it for a cheap, manipulative thriller.