2003 TIFF Update #8: "Dark Moods"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Thursday, September 11, 2003

Today is September 11. Once, that date would have meant little; now, it is side-by-side with November 22 and December 7 on a short calendar of national tragedies. For the most part, the United States today is more like it was on September 10, 2001 than on September 12, but this is a wound that will never quite heal. For as long as there are survivors of the day, the scar will linger. After that, the event will pass into history, and children will read about it in text books. If terrorists attack again with the same scope and ferocity, we will be better prepared and the shock will not be so great. But what a terrible price to pay for the awakening.

I was in Toronto two years ago when the attacks happened, and September 11 brought the film festival to a screeching halt. Screenings were held on subsequent days, but the joy and energy were gone. Last year, there was at times a tentativeness to the proceedings, and almost no one went to the airport on September 11. This year, things are back to normal. Events are not forgotten, but neither are they dwelt upon. Canadians were not cut as deeply as Americans, because they were bystanders, not targets. Their counseling was for shock, not grief. For those living and working in Manhattan, it will take a long time before September 11 is again just another day of the week. For many at the Film Festival, it's already just another day of screenings, interviews, and schmoozing.

As befits the grim nature of the date, today I will report only on darker movies. All three of these are good films, but none are likely to bring smiles to the face.

At least in terms of atmosphere, one of the darkest films at this year's festival is Mike Hodges' I'll Sleep When I'm Dead. Hodges, best known for 1971's Get Carter, and whose career received a mini-revival a couple of years ago with Croupier, saturates this movie with darkness and shadow. It's a slow-moving, moody revenge thriller. Unlike high-energy productions like Point Blank or Death Wish, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead moves at its own pace, making the characters and their moral dilemmas - not blood and violence - the film's foundation.

The film opens by introducing us to Davey (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a well-liked, small-time drug dealer who happens to be the younger brother of Will (Clive Owen), one of the coldest, meanest enforcers ever to walk the streets of London. Three years ago, Will had a crisis of conscience, and, after giving up his profession and fleeing to the countryside, he hasn't once visited the city. One night, as Davey is returning home from a party, he is set upon and brutally raped. Humiliated beyond his ego's capacity to endure it, he staggers into his apartment, fills the bathtub with water, and slits his own throat. The inquest determines that the cause of death is suicide, but Will, returning to London for the funeral, believes otherwise. He sees Davey's death as murder, with the killer being the man who committed the rape. He is intent upon finding this person, and meting out his own brand of justice. Meanwhile, local gang leaders are nervous about Will's re-appearance, fearing that if he is back in London permanently, he will shift the current balance of power.

"Slow burn" is an apt descriptor for this movie. Hodges depicts London as it is rarely seen in movies and never on postcards - a dark, desolate place whose benighted streets and back-alleys are fraught with danger. The London bureau of tourism will not be using I'll Sleep When I'm Dead as a tool to boost vacation travel. Hodges could have made this movie an easier sell if he had sped up the pace and injected a little more action, but he forces the movie to proceed methodically, allowing us to absorb not only the nuances of the characters, but everything about the setting.

Lead actor Clive Owen (who also starred in Croupier and has been mentioned as a possible successor to Pierce Brosnan as James Bond - a job he has stated he doesn't want, by the way) doesn't have a lot of dialogue, but he doesn't need it. He acts with his eyes, and the camera captures a fierce intensity in them that is rarely seen. In addition to Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Davey, Owen is supported by Charlotte Rampling as an ex-girlfriend and Malcolm McDowell as a loving father and husband with a dark secret.

In order to appreciate I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, you have to be willing to absorb unhurried film noir, and to accept that the film's version of "closure" is a little frustrating. Hodges' approach to this material is intentionally the opposite of the one used by Michael Bay and the other MTV-influenced directors. This is a movie that will put ADD sufferers to sleep, while simultaneously rewarding those who have the patience to see it through. I'm in the latter camp; consequently, I found this to be a compelling motion picture.

Shattered Glass is about a tragedy of a different kind. In the late 1990s, as the stock market boomed and a President argued that fellatio wasn't really sex, ethics and morality had become terms that corporate America viewed as quaint relics of the past. This was the New Market. You did what was necessary to get ahead, and if it meant "bending" the established rules, would anyone find out? Journalist Stephen Glass (played here by Hayden Christensen) didn't think so. After starting out as a hungry, promising journalist for the New Republic (the "in-flight magazine of Air Force One"), Glass discovered that he could make a bigger splash with less effort if he faked facts and sources. Soon, he was making up entire stories, and there was a big enough hole in the New Republic's fact-checking process that he was able to get away with it. 27 of the 41 stories he wrote for the magazine were partially or entirely false, and Glass was only caught by accident, when an on-line magazine tried to check his sources and figured out that they didn't exist.

Shattered Glass, the feature debut of Hollywood screenwriter Billy Ray, meticulously chronicles the rise and fall of Glass. Among other things, it shows how he used little things to ingratiate himself with his co-workers, how he constantly played the innocent, and how he squirmed, connived, and twisted to escape the ever-tightening noose. Ray is careful never to demonize Glass. This portrayal avoids one-sidedness, but Glass' actions and accountability speak for themselves. Telling a secretary that her lipstick looks good does not counterbalance falsifying a story about hackers.

It's difficult to tell from the movie whether Glass is a good journalist. He certainly has the capacity to schmooze and mingle, which are more important than ethical considerations in many aspects of today's corporate world. Hayden Christensen (taking a break from turning into Darth Vader) provides an unsettling portrayal of Glass. He presents the character as a wide-eyed and seemingly naive kid, with a lot of childish mannerisms, and an almost pathological need to be liked. Hank Azaria plays Glass' first editor, Michael Kelly, who demanded the highest level of journalistic honesty from his writers. (In a tragically ironic postscript to the story, Kelly became the first journalist killed during the recent Iraq conflict, while Glass may once again have found employment.) Other supporting players include Chloe Sevigny and Melanie Lynskey as editors who support Glass, Peter Sarsgaard as the man who eventually has to fire him, and Steve Zahn as the on-line reporter whose dogged persistence brings the scandal into the open.

Integrity is one of the cornerstones upon which reliable journalism is based, and, when it is called into question, we begin to doubt everything we read in newspapers and magazines and see on television. The recent Jayson Blair/New York Times incident has re-enforced the idea that, while most members of the media are forthright and hard-working, there are are exceptions. Glass was not the first, nor will he be the last, but he was caught in a very public way, and his trial in the media represented the first such Internet-fueled scourging of a journalist. Shattered Glass may be light when it comes to psychological questions, but its detailed accounting of Glass' actions makes for fascinating viewing. Most importantly, however, it raises questions about how much reliability we should place in our everyday sources of news if faking stories is so simple.

11:14 doesn't yet have a distributor, but it will probably get one. Opponents of the film will label it a "gimmick movie," but it's a hell of a gimmick, and first-time director Greg Marcks meticulously stitches the various threads of his story together into a cohesive whole. What Marcks does here is to focus on a moment of time - 11:14 pm, to be precise - in the sleepy town of Middleton, and show from several different perspectives how interrelated events that occur during this minute have lasting repercussions. This sort of thing has been done before, but rarely with such tight plotting and meticulous attention to detail. The film has a few surprises, but the greatest pleasure doesn't come from trying to outguess the script, but from watching the Rube Goldberg-like plot uncoil.

Things are set in motion when a drunk driver named Jack (Henry Thomas) crashes into a body dropped from an overpass. An attempted robbery at a local convenience store results in the shooting of the girl at the register (Hilary Swank). The would-be robber is on his way to meet his girlfriend, Cheri (Rachel Leigh Cook), who is trying to frame him for murder. Cheri's father (Patrick Swayze) has discovered a body and, thinking that his daughter is responsible, he takes action to protect her. Three teenage boys out for a joyride take their eyes off the road for a second too long. And one local police officer is in for a very busy night.

Being more specific would ruin some of 11:14's quirky twists and turns. The storyline isn't hard to follow, but it works best for viewers who have decent memories and don't mind a frequent rewinding of the time line. Marcks' macabre sense of humor results in a tone not unlike the one achieved by Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction. After all, it takes a twisted perspective to make a running gag out of a severed penis - and for that joke to be funny.

11:14 is more interested in dissecting a moment in time than it is in telling a complete story, and watching Marcks connect the dots makes for compelling viewing. However, if you're a fan of closure and don't like dangling threads and loose endings, 11:14 will drive you to distraction. (Perhaps even more than I'll Sleep When I'm Dead.) The fates of all the characters (except the dead ones) are left up in the air. By the time 11:25 has rolled around, the movie is over. The well-respected cast and generally positive festival reception to 11:14 will likely earn it some kind of future exposure (either in theaters or on cable TV). It's a small gem to look for. It's not a standout, but it provides a 90 minute diversion.

© 2003 James Berardinelli

Back to Main Festival Page