2007 TIFF Update #10: "Best Served Cold"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
For Saturday, September 15, 2007

It would be interesting to get a psychologist's perspective about why revenge/vigilante (two sides of the same coin) motion pictures are suddenly so popular. In addition to the three I saw at the Toronto Film Festival (I wrote about The Brave One earlier in the week), there's also Kevin Bacon's recent Death Sentence. Maybe it has something to do with a growing sense in society that criminals are going free and victims aren't getting justice. Perhaps there's a feeling of impotence when it comes to protecting our families and property not only from killers, robbers, and rapists but from terrorists. The revenge film provides the fantasy of control, that one person can make a difference and dole out justice when the system fails. But why is there a sudden preponderance of these movies? Is it just a coincidence or is there something more to it than that?

Reservation Road, from director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda), is based on the moving novel by John Burnham Schwartz. Unfortunately, the changes made by Schwartz (who co-wrote the screenplay with George) to transform the story from the written page to the screen dilute the effectiveness of the source material. In the motion picture version, there are too many coincidences and the ending is weak. There are also times when a scene becomes heavy-handed, as if the filmmakers are concerned that we'll miss the point if they don't hammer it home. The book tore at my heart; the movie left me strangely unmoved.

The film begins with a freak confrontation on a lonely stretch of road. It's late at night and Ethan and Grace Learner (Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly) are driving home with their son, Josh, and their daughter, Emma. They have been at a concert where Josh performed and pull over at a gas station so Emma can use the bathroom and Ethan can buy washer fluid. Meanwhile, divorced dad Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo) is racing to get his son, Sam, back to Dwight's ex-wife, Ruth (Mira Sorvino). The two were at Fenway Park for a Red Sox game, but it ran late and now Dwight is in danger of violating his custody agreement. He's not paying as careful attention to the road as he should be and that's when the accident happens. He swerves and his SUV strikes Josh, instantly killing him.

For Dwight, the roadside encounter by the gas station leads to waves of guilt and self-recrimination. He is haunted by what happened but does not turn himself in and does what he can to hide his role in the hit-and-run. His motivation is Sam - he doesn't want to lose his son. Meanwhile, Ethan and Grace must go through the process of grieving, but the absence of an arrest disallows Ethan the ability to achieve closure. Instead of going forward with his life, he begins to plot vengeance upon the responsible party. Then, convinced that the police are incompetent, he begins his own search for his son's killer, prepared to be judge, jury, and executioner.

The best part of the book is also the best thing about the movie - the profound sense of moral ambiguity. Dwight is not presented as a faceless, conscienceless killer who runs over Josh then gets back to living his life day-by-day. He is haunted by that night, so much so that at times the fear and guilt paralyze him. Meanwhile, Ethan is driven by emotions foreign to him. A loving, caring father and husband, he is suddenly obsessed by a need for closure when there's no effective outlet for his rage.

Like The Brave One, Reservation Road is part drama and part thriller. The first ten minutes are filmed and edited in such a way that the viewer knows something bad is going to happen. There's an ominous sense of foreboding that nothing can shake. Likewise, there's a feeling of urgency later in the proceedings, as the climax approaches and is reached. The disappointment that results from the unmemorable ending is more a function of how it is presented than of the actual events. George and Schwartz don't get us to the point where we believe this is how things would be resolved between these characters. It works in the book because of the insight we are provided into the men's psyches. In the movie, too much is missing for it to have the same impact.

The cast is top-heavy with talent: Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Connelly, and Mira Sorvino. Phoenix and Ruffalo do solid jobs (with Ruffalo providing the most complex and affecting characterization). Connelly and Sorvino are underused, but they bring strength and color to their supporting roles. There's a sense that Grace should have been given more screen time. Her story is, in its own way, as powerful as that of Dwight and Ethan. She blames herself for her son's death, but the movie's exploration of her feelings of culpability is perfunctory.

Reservation Road is powerful material but it is not presented in the most effective manner. There are individual scenes that either don't work (such as Sam's utterance that unwittingly labels his father as "a no-good coward") or don't work as well as they should. The two most obvious contrivances - Dwight being Ethan's lawyer and the way in which a key revelation is handled - are changes from the book and seem designed to take this more into traditional "thriller" territory. As adaptations go, Reservation Road is imperfect; as movies go, it is a flawed presentation of compelling material and intriguing characters.

Sleuth is Kenneth Branagh's re-make of the 1972 Joseph L. Mankiewicz film which, in turn, was based on Anthony Shaffer's stage play. In the original, Laurence Olivier played the high-born snob Andrew Wyke and Michael Caine was the working class hairdresser Milo Tindle. This time around, Caine is Andrew and Jude Law is Milo. The general storyline remains the same, as does the cat-and-mouse dynamic between the leads, but Branagh has dramatically upgraded the look of the movie and acclaimed playwright Harold Pinter has been brought in to re-write the screenplay. The result is a script with more delicious lines and a running length that cuts about 45 minutes from the original.

Sleuth is all about revenge: Andrew's revenge against Milo for stealing his wife and Milo's need to strike back after Andrew humiliates him. The first two acts of the movie are, as explicitly stated, like sets in a tennis match. The third act plays out much differently in this movie than in the 1972 one. Here, it's quick and clean. In the previous Sleuth, it was the most complicated of the three segments. Also, while both films end with the same incident, the implications of that incident are radically different. There's a different "winner" to the 2007 Sleuth than there is to the 1972 one. How the game has changed...

Milo visits Andrew's mansion to discuss what it will take for Andrew to give his wife a divorce. Milo, who has been having an affair with her, wants to marry her. Andrew points out that a woman like that has a voracious appetite for possessions and Milo will need a substantial bump in his financial resources to keep her happy. He offers a proposition: Milo can pretend to be a thief, break into Andrew's mansion, steal some jewels, then fence them. Andrew will collect on the insurance money. It seems to be a foolproof, win-win scheme, but it's really a trap. When Andrew springs it, Milo is caught off guard. But it's not long before he determines a way he can get back at Andrew, and the game is once again afoot.

For those who are unfamiliar with the play or the 1972 film, Sleuth can be enjoyed for its plot convolutions. For those who are aware of all the twists and turns, this is a chance to admire the performances, savor Pinter's script, and appreciate how much visual variety Branagh injects to the proceedings. Still, there's something a little dry and lifeless about the movie. It's technically proficient but emotionally lifeless. One doesn't feel anything for these characters except a hint of dislike. They're both arrogant asses who deserve what they get. And, while Pinter is a wonderful writer, there's a sense that his script is more about words than the feelings and motivations underlying them.

To keep things lively, Branagh uses all kinds of odd camera angles and mixes traditional shots with images gleaned from "security footage." Andrew's mansion is an amazing slice of Oz - a playroom for the rich and famous that's so cold and sterile that it's unfathomable how anyone but a complete narcissist could call it home. Branagh cut his teeth on Shakespeare, so he understands how to vary the rhythms and shot selection to keep a static, dialogue-driven piece from becoming tedious.

Michael Caine is in top form as Andrew - he has perfected the superior, upper-class personality and delivers Pinter's lines with relish. Jude Law, essaying an old Caine character for the second time (the other being Alfie), is on less sure ground. He has a tendency to play scenes too broadly. Maybe the flamboyance is Branagh's fault, but there are times when Milo verges on being unintentionally comedic. The two actors exhibit a nice dark chemistry, and it's clear from the beginning that there are homosexual overtones to their interplay (these become explicit as the story progresses).

If revenge is a dish best served cold, then Andrew and Milo are dining raw. The 1972 movie presented the better story but this one has its own pleasures. It's an interesting failure - a film that works better as a study of technique and writing than as a motion picture.

* * *

I always like to conclude my coverage of the Toronto Film Festival with a brief assessment of how strong I thought the festival was and which highlights/lowlights are worth recapping.

From my perspective, this was a weaker year than 2006, although perhaps not as disappointing as 2005 (which, to date, may be the worst festival I have attended). Of particular note is the low number of "little pictures" that generated strong buzz. Typically, one hears about a title through the grape vine and re-arranges a schedule to fit it in, but there weren't many of those diamonds in the rough this year. Also, the level of excitement at the public screenings was not where it has been in years past. The rush lines were consistently shorter than last year or the year before. This may be because the list of titles didn't energize movie-goers the way some past rosters have.

The five best films I saw at the festival, in descending order of preference: Juno; Into the Wild; Atonement; Lust, Caution; No Country for Old Men. If there's one film I'd want to champion this fall, it's Juno, and I'm not the only one to feel that way. Along with Lars and the Real Girl (which I also liked, although not as much as these five), Juno was the most favorably received major feature of the festival. It was hard (although not impossible) to find people who didn't have glowing things to say about it. Marketed correctly, this could be a player in the Oscar sweepstakes and could do well at the box office.

There are really only two films I would encourage readers to avoid at all costs: the tiresome Silk and the irritating, saccharine Then She Found Me. Both deserve to be consigned to a vault where bad films go to be forgotten. This appears to be what's happening with Silk. Unfortunately, Then She Found Me inexplicably found a distributor, which means viewers around the country are going to have to endure this, probably next year.

Now it's time to take a short rest before going back to writing about regular movies. Good Luck Chuck, anyone?

© 2007 James Berardinelli