Ethan Hawke in First Reformed

TIFF17 The End

A Look At Our People Will be Healed, Sweet Country, First Reformed, and Downrange

Sep 16, 2017 By Jason Wilson Web Exclusive
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The end has arrived. The 42nd Toronto International Film Festival has been a ride simultaneously invigorating and exhausting. The films have been, as expected, a mixed bag. You can't possibly be inundated with four movies per day for nine days and expect them all to hit their marks. But, the cream rises.

After taking a break on Thursday, I jumped back into screening-mode Friday for another four-film slate that started with my first-and only-documentary of the festival, Alanis Obomsawin's Our People Will be Healed. It follows a First Nations community in Manitoba called Norway House, depicting a community trying to recapture its history and culture through education and other local events. It starts with the local school and showcases the resources at their disposal, champions the faculty and the efforts in place to teach the youth about their heritage. From there, the film drifts to the village, the surrounding wilderness, and its many amenities.

The film is careful with its depiction, only occasionally explicitly calling out colonization-essentially what this community is working to correct. There is brief mention of residential schools, which are still, and always will be a shameful black spot on Canadian history, but consciously chooses to focus on the positive. While this could be seen as avoiding unpleasantness, I think it's also about changing the narrative in Canada when it comes to First Nations and Indigenous communities. While there are certainly areas of immense poverty throughout Canada's Indigenous population, it's unfair to believe that it's the norm. Obomsawin's film doesn't ignore the darkness of history or its ripple effects to today, but instead looks at the successes of a community that is often not seen in a positive light by white Canada. There is a divide, and while it may not be binary it is still worth discussing.

The only sequence I think could have been excised and it wouldn't have lost anything because of it is the fiddle festival. It is a demonstration of bringing communities together, but the point is established quickly and this section just goes on and on.

Afterwards, I was greeted by the disappointing Australian 'western,' Sweet Country. Sam is a free man, but is seen as lesser on account of the color of his skin in a time when any idea of equality was still foreign. When Harry shows up asking for help from Fred, he mistakes Sam for his slave. Fred, being a minister, asks Sam to help Harry at his station house. A series of events follows and Sam shoots Harry dead in self-defence. This sparks a manhunt and Sam's desperate drive for survival.

Sweet Country isn't without its merits. It's a rough-and-tumble exploration of racism and colonialism in Australia and the angry entitlement that accompanied the colonizers. But it's so purposely one-note that it feels redundant before even the half-way mark. It's fierce and unflinching, which will appeal to many viewers, and it absolutely shouldn't be sanitized. As a story, however, it's redundant and doesn't have anything illuminating or very interesting to say about the bloody history haunting the outback.

Another haunted man is Ethan Hawkes' Reverend Toller in Paul Schrader's newest-and surprisingly low-key-First Reformed. As a man of the cloth who is urinating blood, likely nearing death, he starts keeping a journal of his thoughts. While his narration suggests that he has not lost his faith, he's certainly questioning it. This is exacerbated when he meets Michael. Michael's wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is worried about him. He wants her to get an abortion because of his hopeless feelings about the environment and believing that it would be irresponsible and reckless to bring new life into a doomed planet.

So, the talk of environmentalism will come off as preachy, but perhaps that's only because Schrader and company take a pretty firm stance about climate change (which, you know, shouldn't be outlandish). It may be one of those moments where treating something with such earnestness evokes an uncomfortable reaction. Either way, Michael's concerns for the future of the world don't evaporate for the reverend. As he plans for his small church's 250th anniversary, with the help of a massive corporate church, he becomes more and more disillusioned. The end result is an emotional, thoughtful, angry, and quiet plea for sanity and reason over profit and senseless destruction of the earth's resources. Reverend Toller may not have the answers, and his choices may not be the avenue of clear thinking, but his heart is in the right place. So is Schrader's film.

The last movie of my festival experience was, naturally, at Midnight Madness. Downrange, Ryuhei Kitamura's latest, checks off almost all the hallmarks of a MM entry. It's gory to the nth degree. It's intense. It just doesn't have any nudity. The whole thing is pretty much undone by some of the worst acting in a horror movie this side of Troll 2. The line readings are so unnatural it's jarring. Nothing feels natural. While it's folly to criticize horror films for a lack of realism, that is normally reserved for plot details. It does not matter that the story itself is ludicrous, that's part of the fun, but if the characters are unnatural and the dialogue is ridiculous like it is here, it undermines the connection to the proceedings.

"But, it's just a gore-fest," you'll say. Sure, and there are plenty of over-the-top gory movies that don't feature performances with consistently clumsy delivery. Maybe it's by design, but that doesn't make things better. Downrange is still an artfully-made thriller, however, with glimpses to what it could have been. It dives right into the action with no wasted time and features a relatively simple set-up. A sniper shoots out the tire of a SUV with a group of road-tripping 20-somethings. As they're changing the tire, unaware that it was a bullet, he starts picking them off. It's not convoluted. It's very straightforward. And if you can overlook the performances, the tension will be enough of a payoff, and so will the very last story beat.

So that's that. I hope you've enjoyed following along with my TIFF adventure. It's been a great time, and there will be plenty of excellent films coming to cinemas in the near future you need to check out. My personal top five of the festival were as follows:

1. The Florida Project
2. The Killing of a Sacred Deer
3. The Death of Stalin
4. Thelma
5. Call Me by Your Name

Enjoy. See you at the movies...I'm probably going to catch up with It now.

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