Sundance Diary, Day 4: ‘To The Bone,’ ‘Wind River,’ ‘Wilson,’ ‘Gook’

Our latest dispatch from Park City looks at a mixed bag of action, comedy, and drama.

PARK CITY, UTAH: Early in Marti Noxon’s To the Bone, Ellen (Lily Collins) is sitting down for dinner with her sister (Liana Liberato) – though it’s a bit of a charade, because Ellen is anorexic, and won’t eat much of anything anyway. At her sister’s prodding, she can run down the calorie counts of every item on her plate, which her sister checks for accuracy (correct across the board). “It’s like you have Calorie Aspergers,” she says, and that kind of whip-smart, dry verbal wit is part of what make To the Bone so special.

It’s also the stock-in-trade of writer/director Noxon, making her feature directorial debut after writing and/or directing episodes of Buffy, Angel, unREAL, and many more. She’s got the right touch for this material, which could’ve easily veered into Lifetime movie or After-School Special territory – and to be sure, there’s much of To the Bone that sounds hoary or hokey. But it plays gracefully, thanks to the honesty of Noxon’s approach; she recognizes that moments of high emotion can be both powerful and a little silly, and isn’t afraid of that duality.

Noxon based the film on her own struggle with an eating disorder, and it’s a script that feels written from the inside; she knows all the shop talk and shortcuts, about “barf stashes”and laxatives, the whole nine yards. When the live-in nurse (Retta, marvelous) shows Ellen around her new inpatient facility, she warns her: “We know all the tricks.” Noxon does too – and she understands the drive of this disease the way only an insider can.

Collins (so charming a couple of months back in Rules Don’t Apply ) is excellent, preserving our sympathy even in the face of her stubbornness and self-destructiveness. “I’m maintaining,” she says, when asked how she’s doing, and through much of the film, that’s the best she can offer. Pressed further, she’ll push back: “I’ve got it under control. Nothing bad is gonna happen.” And she almost sounds like she believes it. To The Bone is a very wise movie about living that delusion, and summoning up the force to push it aside.

*

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Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River doesn’t get off to the most promising of starts, opening as it does with a scene of abstracted escape, a barefoot woman running across the snowy tundra, accompanied by a voice-over of some pretty mediocre poetry. What follows is similarly uninspired: crushingly metaphorical imagery of wolf and sheep (yes, really), Jeremy Renner doing some hunting and tracking, discovering the woman’s body and getting a police procedural vibe going, Elizabeth Olsen showing up as an painfully green FBI agent who didn’t even bring a winter coat. In fact, the similarities to Sheridan’s Sicario script are striking to the point of repetition – and troubling in the matter of his female lead, who is again a naive and mildly incompetent federal agent in over her head. (If it’s not recycling, it’s a real problem with his perception of women in law enforcement.)

But even in the first, wobbly hour or so, there are elements of Wind River worth praising: the mournful score by Nick Cave and Warren Elllis, a large supporting role for the always welcome Graham Greene (an actor who makes an art of being non-plussed), and a solid, lived-in performance by Jeremy Renner. As a hunter and tracker helping Olsen’s fed (even serving as her Seeing Eye Men on a couple of occasions), he’s a man’s man with both grit and sensitivity, and he seems comfortable in the role, even if he’s given a couple too many earnest monologues. And Olsen is pretty good, considering what a hopeless role she’s been handed.

The picture finally catches fire in the third act, with a bracing armed stand-off scene, a clever and unexpected flashback to the night in question, and a climax of both merciless tension and brute force. With this, his third produced feature, Sheridan’s limitations are starting to show; I found myself finally understanding some of the complaints I’d brushed off regarding Sicario and Hell or High Water. But when it works, it really works.

*

Photo credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire
Photo credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire

“We’re like something out of a horror movie,” Pippi (Laura Dern) despairs in Craig Johnson’s Wilson. “All pasty and bald and bitter and lonely.” She’s talking about herself and her ex-husband, but really, she could be talking about any of the protagonists of Daniel Clowes’s graphic novels. Most of them are complicated cranks, and not easy to translate from his page to the screen; Terry Zwigoff pulled it off in Ghost World and (to a lesser degree) Art School Confidential. Johnson’s not so lucky.

But Woody Harrelson is awfully good as Wilson – that’s all the name we know, no idea if it’s first or last, he’s just “Wilson” – a boisterous and opinionated sonofabitch who begins the movie by dismissing life itself as “a big fairy tale, total bullshit,” and by proclaiming, “Modern civilization is a scam.” He lives in an apartment piled high with books, records, and movies, though he seems to get most of his pleasure out of striking up conversations with people deeply uninterested in striking up conversations. “I need to change my life up a little bit, meet some new people, shake things up,” he decides, and by the end of the movie, he has certainly done that.

Wilson’s dialogue is peppered with colorful vulgarity and provocative pronouncements, but the movie is trying so hard to be “outrageous,” it ends up covered in flop sweat. Johnson moves rather clumsily from scene to scene, and the transitions from comedy to drama and back are bumpy; the individual moments often play, but they don’t accumulate into much of anything. To be sure, there are big laughs to be had here, and some memorable performances. But you just keep waiting for it to come together, and it never quite does.

*

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There’s a fascinating circularity at work in the subject matter and aesthetics of Justin Chon’s Gook. It’s set entirely in a single day, and takes place mostly in and around a store, so the grainy black-and-white cinematography immediately recalls Kevin Smith’s Clerks (it even has, very briefly, a Silent Bob-type character). Smith has often said his biggest influence on that film was Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, a more serious examination of a single neighborhood and the violence at the end of a long day; that 1989 film, in retrospect, eerily predicted the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the Rodney King verdict. And Gook is set on the day those riots began, when (among other conflagrations) the tensions between the Korean-American and African-American communities, in that city, at that moment, finally exploded.

Alas, that fascinating dynamic is ultimately not really explored. Chon is more interested in making the conflicts personal, so he focuses on brothers Daniel (David So) and Eli (Chon himself), who run a shoe store in a mostly black neighborhood, and Kamilla (Simone Baker), the young African-American girl who hangs out there and works for them. The crossing of cultures here is a smart play, dramatically speaking; these conflicts weren’t always cut-and-dried, and were often as much generational as racial (as seen in Eli’s interactions with ancient Mr. Kim, who runs the Korean grocery across the way) But these interpersonal dynamics are compelling, particularly as we realize Kamilla feels closer to Daniel and Eli than she does to her own siblings.

Gook views the riots from the ground level – and from a distance, until it’s suddenly in the middle. In many ways, it falls into the tradition of the so-called “hood” movies that were in theaters before and after the riots, films like Boyz N The Hood, Juice, and South Central. Like the best of them, it’s also often just a hang-out movie, in which characters joke, jeer, and even dance a bit. Chon doesn’t quite have the instincts of a great filmmaker yet; the pacing is off (particularly towards the end), some of the dialogue is clumsy, and the acting is uneven. But those issues are fairly typical to low-budget indies, and if Gook is occasionally amateurish, it also burns with a young artist’s raw intensity. Among all the slick, star-driven pictures at Sundance, that’s an awfully valuable quality.

*

On tap for tomorrow: Jack Black as The Polka King, Judy Greer and Michael Cera in Lemon, several Cate Blanchetts in Manifesto, and the new documentary Tell Them We Are Rising.