TIFF Diary #3: ‘Hostiles,’ ‘First Reformed,’ ‘Euphoria,’ ‘Outside In’

Our reviews of four more Toronto features, including the latest from Paul Schrader, Scott Cooper, and Lynn Shelton.

Hostiles, the new Western from Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper, opens with a quote from D.H. Lawrence: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” In Cooper’s film, that soul belongs to Captain Joseph Blocker, who, we’re told, “took more scalps than Sitting Bull himself.” The time is 1892, later than most Western films, and it’s very much an end-of-an-era story; men like Blocker, and the ideas they hold, are becoming passé. Christian Bale stars, clearly seeing Blocker as his Ethan Edwards role, and he plays it as such (and well).

Cooper’s story – of how Blocker accompanies an American Indian chief and his family, plus a very recent widow they meet along the way (Rosamund Pike, in a performance of such rough emotion that it plays like an open wound), from New Mexico to Wyoming – is deliberately, maybe even languidly paced, and nothing’s more annoying than announcing that a movie could stand to lose twenty minutes, but it could stand to lose twenty minutes. Yet the slower tempo also means the out-of-nowhere attacks and shoot-outs hit harder, and some of the imagery is straight-up horrifying.

Hostiles is more than a little predictable, sometimes tripping over the obviousness of its own nobility, and its ending assumes a degree of emotional investment that’s not entirely earned. But it works – it’s an involving Western whose aesthetic beauty is matched by its narrative brutality.

*

You’d have to work pretty hard to come up with two films with less in common than Dog Eat Dog, last year’s bugfuck Nicolas Cage/Willem Dafoe exploitation picture, and First Reformed, the tricky new religious drama with Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried, but they have two similarities: both played at TIFF, and both were directed by Paul Schrader. The range, in such a short space, is sort of mind-boggling; the new film is much more of a piece with his earlier work, returning to the muted, austere mood of, in particular, his 1997 Oscar nominee Affliction. He shoots it in a flat, unaffected style, using a squared-off aspect ratio (as if to permit no more information into the frame than necessary), and frames most of his images either very close up, or very far away. He doesn’t sentimentalize, in other words, or even overdramatize, which makes the picture’s eventual emotional intensity all the more overwhelming.

Hawke plays, as another character puts it, “a minister at a tourist church no one attends.” It’s a historic house of worship in upstate New York, ramping up for its 250th anniversary “reconcecrating,” but most of the traffic goes to the megachurch up the way; Rev. Toller leads tours, deals with upkeep, and, occasionally, pastors directly to those in need – the therapist, in communities without one. Early in the film, he finds himself in a particularly challenging debate with a young man who wants his wife (Amanda Seyfried) to abort her pregnancy, simply unable to contemplate bringing a life into a world destined for destruction, and in that conversation, Schrader ends up grappling with a giant question of not only the spiritual life, but life itself: Do we work to survive (prosper, even), or do we surrender to despair?

Unique in contemporary cinema, it’s a film that takes religion and scripture seriously, and because it does, it must go to the very dark place it eventually goes – and the place you’d expect from the director of Affliction and Mishima, and the writer of Taxi Driver. Hawke is an ideal Schrader protagonist, his low, raspy voice and no-nonsense dialogue delivery concealing the volcanic eruptions of his soul, and Seyfried is warm and wonderful. First Reformed is perhaps a bit too dour (even for Schrader), and it’s temporarily crippled by a late fantasy sequence that’s so audacious, you wish it worked. But it doesn’t, mostly because it requires shredding the film’s greatest virtues: its economy, its simplicity, and its directness.

*

Eva Green is an actor who’s legitimately glorious to watch. She has a verve and spirit that livens up even her worst projects, and juices up her best, so a tortured, life-and-death drama like Euphoria isn’t her style at all. This is much more in co-star Alicia Vikander’s wheelhouse (unsurprisingly, she’s credited as a producer); watching Green play a depressed dying girl is like watching Michael Jordan when he was playing baseball.

It’s not a total waste. We get a spirited Charles Dance performance, plenty of screen time for Charlotte Rampling’s seen-it-all-eyes, and a scene where she and Green slow-dance to David Bowie. But at a certain point, you find yourself just waiting for estranged sisters Green and Vikander to reconcile already, so Green can die and the movie can end. Euphoria is fine – there’s nothing insulting or offensive about it. But there’s nothing particularly special either, except in how it wastes one of the most electrifyingly charismatic performers around.

*

“I’m worried that Chris has a little crush on me,” Carol (Edie Falco) confesses to a colleague in the teacher’s lounge. She’s right, and it is, to put it mildly, a dicey situation – Chris (Jay Duplass) was one of her students, all those years ago, but then he got into some trouble (wrong place at the wrong time situation, really) and he’s been in jail for 20 years, but Carol did a lot of work to get him out. Over the course of those years, she spent time on the phone with him, and a closeness developed between them, and that’s why the situation is so sticky – her concern read to him as romantic interest. And who knows, maybe it was.

Chris and Carol’s story is the focus of Outside In, the latest from director Lynn Shelton, who also shares a writing credit with Duplass. Her best-known films (Your Sister’s Sister, Touchy Feely, Laggies) are comedy/dramas with an accent on the former; this one leans more towards drama, which is a bit of a disappointment, since she’s honed such a specific and welcome comic voice. But it’s full of little flashes of truth and characters of welcome complexity, and it goes in some unexpected directions; oddly enough, it ends up asking the same central question as Louis CK’s TIFF feature I Love You, Daddy: “Yes, but would you trust him with your teenage daughter?”

Falco (who also shows up in Louie’s film) is, as usual, superb – so present, and so conflicted, with an intensity that nicely complements the delicacy of Duplass’s characterization. Kaitlyn Dever is marvelous as the daughter, playing dimensions we don’t get often enough from teenage girls in films (even indie films). And Ben Schwarz is nicely earthy in a role situated roughly a hundred miles from his Jean-Raphio on Parks & Rec (though his thread is underdeveloped, and by the end, a distraction). It’s a quiet film, perhaps too much so for some viewers. But its simplicity and honesty is really quite something.