Arts sundance film review

Genre film making at its finest

Two outstanding films round out Sundance’s Midnight Program

Directed by Panos Cosmatos
Screenplay written by Panos Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn
Starring Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache
Not Rated, coming soon

Directed by Ari Aster
Screenplay written by Ari Aster
Starring Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd, Milly Shapiro
Not Rated, in theaters Jun. 8

Introducing Mandy, the latest feature from emerging cult film director Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow), Sundance’s director of programming Trevor Groth explained that the film was largely to thank for one of the best Midnight lineups the festival has ever seen. The Midnight section, according to the Sundance program, showcases films “from horror flicks and bizarre comedies to works that defy any genre,” and Mandy is simultaneously exemplary of all three. Both a love letter and death note to genre filmmaking, Cosmatos’s film employs genre tropes with a profound aesthetic respect, even as it invites us to laugh at their nonsense and strives to reach beyond them.

Nicolas Cage stars as Red Miller, a lumberjack in the Pacific Northwest who lives a quiet existence with his partner Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough), a New Wave artist and fantasy aficionado. Their idyll is violently interrupted by the arrival of the Children of the New Dawn, a post-Christian religious cult led by the megalomaniacal Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). The rest is revenge. It’s evident that Cosmatos has spent a lot of time with fantasy and horror, since it’s all there in his film: the supernatural ocarina, the sagely weaponskeeper, the forging of a sepulchral blade, the pet tiger, the guide who gives cardinal directions, the challenger with a larger weapon. Over the course of the film, the setting itself transforms from the forested hills of Cascadia to a fantastical landscape of jutting rock and crimson skies with far too many moons. Even the unconscious subtexts of the horror genre explode into stark, ludicrous physicality. One memorable foe, a demon sporting a sword for a phallus and a penchant for hard pornography, farcically embodies the penetrative violence that abounds in slasher films.

Cosmatos is positively giddy with the possibilities and for the most part delivers in his earnestness, some flaws notwithstanding. The most apparent among these is the film’s pacing, which lingers too long on certain expository scenes (namely, those marked by empty character-building dialogue) to no effect and concludes the long-awaited final showdown a touch too quickly. The result is a film unfortunately lacking in the pathos it evidently wants to convey, striving to transform the hackneyed formula of the revenge film into a tragic portrait of innocence lost, though completely misguided in its attempts to do so. And yet, failing this, Cosmatos still manages to transcend the medium in which he works.

Anything but a Scream-like satire, Mandy pokes holes in bloated genre forms and holds what substance remains in solemn reverence. The film’s artistic vision and musical score (Jóhann Jóhannsson, Sicario) are among the greatest testaments to this, conjuring truly breathtaking experiences of the otherworldly. Cosmatos’ camera alternates between hazy trance and sharp lucidity, the latter providing some of the film’s greatest laughs — and, arguably, its turning point — in a stationary, wide-angle shot of Nicolas Cage at long last unleashing his anguish. (This author would be remiss not to mention Cage’s casting here. Don’t expect the crackling desperation that powered his heartrending performances in Leaving Las Vegas or Adaptation or the sellout insanity behind The Wicker Man or Bangkok Dangerous; Cosmatos relishes in the actor’s range from unbridled madness to subtle abjection and writes him a character that swings as smoothly and rapidly between to two as needed.) Even if their reach exceeds their grasp, Cosmatos’ efforts amount to so much more than a playful romp, showing us the wildly transporting possibilities of our fantastical imaginings.

Where Mandy is obsessed with the minutiae of genre filmmaking, Hereditary, the debut feature from writer-director Ari Aster, would rather abandon the label altogether as needlessly reductive. To be sure, Hereditary is a horror film, and a terrifying one at that, yet the psychological assault it enacts upon its audience is derived from the very real emotional terror of family traumas — indeed, these painfully personal realities comprise the entire foundation for the horror effected by the supernatural elements that emerge in the film’s second half.

A prologue displaying the text of a memorial service notice opens the story shortly after the death of Ellen, the guarded and manipulative matriarch of the Graham family. Annie Graham (Toni Collette), her daughter, gives an ambivalent eulogy (“She was a very difficult woman, which maybe explains me”) and later divulges to a peer therapy group the extent of her mother’s damaging influence and her own resulting guilt: “I just don’t want to put any more stress on my family.” Unexpected plot developments come early and often, but suffice it to say that Ellen’s poisonous legacy isn’t laid to rest with her. Annie continually recoils from the memory of her mother, a fear intensified by seeing her relationship to her own children strained by the emotional baggage she carries. A singular fate is borne by her daughter, Charlie (a very creepy Milly Shapiro), who in her infancy was an object of Ellen’s obsession.

Collette’s character, the central node in this family drama, is particularly affecting. Annie is animated by a performance that gut-wrenchingly portrays the confusion, empathy, hatred, guilt, and fear that she suffers, many of which come to a head in a family dinner scene to rival that in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for its horrifying realism. An artist who works in miniature dioramas, often of real or imagined scenes from her own experience, Annie is often seen recreating her environs on a smaller scale. More than just a reflexive metaphor for the art of filmmaking, the activity serves to symbolize the perfectly unintentional but no less harmful violence of perpetuating family traumas. As a way of processing her own fears and anxieties, she duplicates and transfers them onto characters of her own creation. The film’s opening shot, in this manner, establishes everything to follow: the camera pans from a treehouse seen through a window to Annie’s tiny rendition of the family’s actual house, before closing in on one of the rooms until it fills the frame and real actors commence the action.

Aster terrorizes his viewers by gradually accumulating an existential dread at the sheer power of blood relations, a dread that suffuses the film’s atmosphere and heightens even the simplest of formal scares. The occasional jump scare, the haunted house aura (American Craftsman architecture was never so insidious), the nightmare sequences: all these devices are loaded with the terrible fear that these characters suffer for the awful, immutable fact of their family ties. Moreover, the occult in the film is merely a sublimation of the dark magic we work upon each other, even and especially our loved ones, every day. Hereditary is a horror film that accomplishes the greatest any film has to offer: a carefully observed portrait of reality. Leaving the theater, one wonders, aghast, what personal demons inspired Aster to tell this story; upon reflection, however, the horrors he shows become all too universal.