With the Sundance Film Festival pivoting to virtual, once again, I had an opportunity to screen several films from home. Picking up where I left off in Part I, with so many features filmed during the pandemic, it’s easy to pick up a running theme of these Sundance entries involving isolation, paranoia, and distrust in the systems in place. Sadly, Watcher is one of the weakest examples screened.
Playing as a new take on something delivered by Hitchcock and Polanski back in their heyday, Watcher is a euro-thriller that finds Maika Monroe’s Julia as the most dramatic fish out of water. Not only is she having a tough time with the language barrier, having moved to Romania with her boyfriend, she also appears to be being watched by a man in an apartment building facing her rear window. Clearly, the film has specific ideas on its mind that involve the nature of being gaslit, and the treatment of women deemed hysterical. Director Chloe Okuno adds some style afforded by the nature of filming in Romania. Still, as a slow-burn thriller, so much of what’s taking place feels like a movie going through the motions before arriving at a conclusion lacking surprise or energy.
Far more successful is Resurrection, another thriller focused on a woman slowly unraveling thanks to the presence of the most toxic of men. Rebecca Hall stars as Margaret, a single mother and successful businesswoman whose entire life is upended by the arrival of David (Tim Roth). This man once relied on psychological torture during their relationship, and he has found a way right back into Margaret’s mind once again. Hall is excellent here, playing into her character’s fragile and damaged mindset, eschewing any sense of vanity. Roth is equally compelling in the most repugnant ways, solidifying himself once more as a terrific screen villain. Most effective is how much is implied throughout the film’s runtime before finding ways to deliver some truly disturbing horror in its climax. A movie to watch, if you have the guts.
I did not have the chance to watch many documentaries at Sundance, but I couldn’t pass up seeing what filmmaker Ramin Bahrani was prepared to deliver with 2nd Chance. This film chronicles the life of Richard Davis, the former owner of a pizza parlor who would go on to invent the concealable bulletproof vest – shooting himself nearly 200 times to prove its effectiveness. While Bahrani relies on a typical interview format, with archival footage edited in, it’s interesting to see how Davis presents himself at an older age while hearing the opinions of those who were in his orbit. At the same time, Bahrani also chooses to tackle America’s obsession with guns and violence, which isn’t entirely effective. However, it does allow for a couple of emotionally powerful moments.
The power of the threat of violence is a big part of 892, a ripped-from-the-headlines story focused on the plight of Brian Brown-Easley. John Boyega stars as Brian, a Marine and war veteran who has been pushed to the edge due to financial issues related to the poor service of Veteran Affairs. This comes in addition to the mental scars he’s suffered. To make his point, Brian decides to hold two bank managers (Nicole Beharie and Selenis Leyva) hostage inside of a Wells Fargo, threatening to blow up the whole building if he is not given his proper dues. Boyega is excellent at playing up the stress of his situation, balanced with the reserve of being a Marine brought up with proper manners. Also worth noting is Michael K. Williams in his final performance as a hostage negotiator. While a little too lacking in frills to be the next Dog Day Afternoon, 892 does plenty with its suspense and emotional underpinnings.
Suspenseful in a different way is Emergency, a comedy-thriller that takes on a structure similar to Superbad but from the perspective of two black college friends (RJ Cyler and Donald Elise Watkins) and their Latino roommate (Sebastian Chacon). For them, a night of partying is interrupted when they discover an unconscious white girl on the floor of their house. Weighing the pros and cons of calling the police, given how things could be perceived, other actions are taken in an attempt to take the young woman to safety.
This is the sort of film that’s built off one terrible decision made after another, and yet, I can give a lot of what’s taking place a pass because of the immense chemistry shared between Cyler and Watkins. Both actors bring plenty to their characters, enhancing the themes being tackled in the process. The way Emergency finds the energy to ramp up the drama in some climactic instances only adds to why I’d place the film in the upper half of these Sundance features screened.
As far as balancing the comedic against the serious, it’s wild how closely writer/director Riley Stearns hews toward the films of Yorgos Lanthimos. Dual, much like Stearns’ previous feature, The Art of Self Defense, is a dryly funny film that has characters speak in a specific and direct rhythm that runs the risk of making the characters seem like robots. As far as the premise, Karen Gillan stars as a woman who opts for a cloning procedure after being diagnosed with a terminal illness.
As it turns out, she’s not actually dying, and the clone chooses to fight for her life in a court-mandated duel to the death. Offbeat is precisely the word to use to describe this film, and I haven’t even gotten to Aaron Paul as the duel trainer. There’s a definite sense of humor to this film, and if one is on its wavelength, there’s a lot to enjoy. I like what Stearns does, and digging into the mindsets of these stilted characters yields interesting rewards.
The final film of note is my other favorite from what I saw at Sundance. I’ve already reviewed Something in the Dirt in full, but it is worth noting just what a talented pair Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are. I really dig their style of low-key science fiction features that embrace interesting pairings and bizarre occurrences that inform the plot and mood of their features. I certainly recommend The Endless, Synchronic, and their other films, in addition to seeking out this latest effort when it becomes available.