My favorite films at the Toronto International Film Festival — “Shame,” “Rampart,” “Killer Joe,” “Into the Abyss” and “Wuthering Heights” — seem to indicate that my soul is deeply troubled. All the films venture into extremely disturbing territory, but I can confidently say that all left a lasting impression on me with indelible images, sequences and lines of dialogue that wil continue to linger long after this fall’s festival circuit.
Strange that “Shame” and “Rampart” — two films that I saw within days of each other — would reflect eerily similar views of two very masculine men descending into personal hells, swallowed up by their very own testosterone. As good as Michael Fessbender and Woody Harrelson are in their respective roles, both depicting a sort of slick and charismatic tight-fisted machismo that’s collapsing from the inside, it’s filmmakers Steve McQueen and Oren Movermen that paint these character portraits with such specificity and artfulness, whether in the rigid, clean and shallow Manhattan upper-class milieu of “Shame” or the sun-glaring claustrophobia that envelopes the L.A. of “Rampart.”
While occasionally played for laughs, “Killer Joe” is just as dark and twisted, and also features another corrupt, masculine bastard, in Michael McConaughey’s detective-cum-assassin Joe. But “Killer Joe” belongs to Juno Temple, whose ethereal, enigmatic performance of innocence and innocence lost makes the whole project turn on its head. Thanks to Tracy Letts’ play, this is a far more complicated and satisfying film than it first appears. And viewers will likely never eat another fried chicken leg in their lives.
Andrea Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights” confirms the British director’s talent for tactile filmmaking: I can’t think of another film I’ve seen in recent memory where I could actually feel so much of the film: from the muddy grass to a sheep-wool’s blanket to the brown hair on the back of Catherine’s neck. A tale of obsession on par with “Shame,” “Wuthering Heights” may have felt a little long to me, but it’s such a strong movie, nonetheless, thanks to the incredible performances of the child actors and Arnold’s palpable frames.
Now for Werner Herzog. Much has already been written about his humanistic gaze into the dark heart of capital punishment in a Texas town. And while I’m still debating the fact that the film surprisingly glosses over the dimensions and motivations of the central killer–a boyish man with a goofy smile–“Into the Abyss” offers so many honest, uncensored interviews of loss and transformation that it doesn’t seem to matter. And final testimony by a former death-house chief makes a more convincing argument against the death penalty than anything I’ve ever seen. Book-ended by discussions about rabbits and hummingbirds, it’s Herzog’s most profound meditation on death and life in years.