Film festivals are often studies in contrast and there may have been no greater example than last Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival — otherwise known as TIFF — when Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” played immediately before Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.” Both movies are the works of established filmmakers known for dark, uncompromising visions of American mythology viewed through a deconstructive lens. Anderson and Korine take significantly different approaches to narrative, but they’re united here by a shared interest in exploring a country with plenty of demons to excise. There are some 300 movies at Toronto this year, but at its midpoint, it’s the American auteurs that dominate this Canadian festival.
Anderson, having recently won the directing prize at Venice for “The Master” amid reports that the jury initially tried to give him even more awards, has made his avoidance of compromise especially apparent with this latest achievement. The first Toronto screening, the film’s North American premiere, started nearly an hour late while Anderson took his time in the projection booth to ensure the 70mm projection was up to his standards. Nobody forces Anderson to rush through his routine, not even Harvey Weinstein, whose company’s disinterest in the director’s commitment to showing the movie in a large format hasn’t stopped him from doing it anyway.
A marvelously enigmatic period drama about the roots of Scientology, “The Master” may not demand 70mm projection, but it does contain a vast scope. The experiences of disgruntled WWII Navy man Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who drunkenly stumbles onto the cult-infested ship commanded by Lancester Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a dead ringer for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, mostly unfolds as a series of mysterious encounters rendered in varying exploratory notes by Jonny Greenwood’s wondrous score.
A sloven, giddily sophomoric and usually inebriated headcase rendered emotionally unsteady by his experiences at sea, Freddie has gone loony by the movie’s first scene. Initially drawn to Lancester’s warm community, he’s quickly subsumed by older man’s unorthodox approach to therapy. Calmly guiding Freddie toward finding “an inherent state of perfect” and “the rejuvenating powers of youth,” he breaks down the seaman’s raucous facade by forcing him not to blink while unleashing a series of questions that dig into Freddie’s deepest secrets. It’s one of many moments where the movie generates a hypnotic effect by rendering Scientology’s indoctrination methods with tremendously immersive rhythms.
The movie brilliantly explores the vulnerability required to give oneself over to irrational conceit. By the time Lancester’s con artistry is clear to Freddie, he’s fallen into the group too deep for the feisty Master to let him simply walk away. Nevertheless, while Freddie’s epiphanies first guide him toward Scientology, when he realizes the ruse Anderson implies that the character reaches an even greater state of corruption than before. Bookmarked by farcical images of Phoenix on the beach cuddling with a naked woman he has carved in the sand, “The Master” shows how personal indulgences are a form of religion, too. If Lancester can invent his own rules, so can Freddie.
Korine’s “Spring Breakers” also features hedonism on the beach, albeit in a far more unhinged fashion. The director’s biggest production to date is a glorious act of subversion on multiple levels. Casting Disneyfied actresses Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens as well as Ashley Benson in a twisted production unlike anything they’re appeared in before, “Spring Breakers” follows a group of college girls who rob a diner so they can afford a zany party trip to Florida during the vacation week in question. Once they arrive, their intoxicated antics eventually land them behind bars, until the cartoonish gangster Alien (James Franco) decides to bail them out.
Taking the girls under his bizarrely militant wing, Alien opens the doors to a far scarier level of materialistic obsessions that go beyond intoxicants to include murder and promiscuity. As Korine explained in an interview with Indiewire, “criminal culture feels like the last vestige of American rebellion.” No scene demonstrates the unlikely bridge between teen mayhem and outlaw delusions than when one of the young spring breakers jabs a gun in Alien’s mouth and he responds by giving it a blowjob.
Like all of Korine’s movies, “Spring Breakers” fixates on people frustrated by societal restrictions and subsequently tearing them down. The idea takes precedence over any semblance of a narrative. While young audiences may enter “Spring Breakers” expecting a guilty pleasure, they instead will find a success of increasingly abstract moments that Jason Anderson aptly described in his Indiewire review as “simultaneously gorgeous and grotesque.”
Take, for example, the phenomenally memorable montage of spring break partiers that opens the movie. Topless women caked in beer fellate popsicles while their shirtless male peers shout to the wind, a ritualistic process rendered in slo-mo and set to a pulsing techno soundtrack by Skrillex. This isn’t an introduction to the setting of “Spring Breakers,” but rather an immediate magnification of its DNA, and a lucid reminder that his movies have a closer relationship to still photography than cinema. “Spring Breakers” displays the proverbial “snapshot aesthetic” gone wild.
Like “The Master,” Korine’s movie also deals with the subjectivity of religious experiences. There’s a reason why Gomez’s character, the only of the bunch to find the lurid spring break culture deeply unsettling, has been named Faith. Her Christian values clash with the other girls’ equally staunch commitment to a different ideology. “I’m starting to think this is the most spiritual place I’ve ever been,” one of them says about the Florida setting. Korine frames the entire institution of spring break as a religion defined by booze and sex.
David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” which I reviewed over the weekend, contains no such vulgar commentary. However, in its enormously amusing portrait of a moody ex-teacher (Bradley Cooper) coming to grips with his life and the equally downtrodden woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who helps him work out his hangups, “Silver Linings Playbook” is the third movie in this year’s unlikely TIFF trilogy to find discarded members of American society getting their acts together on their own terms. “It’s a who-we-are black comedy,” as Anne Thompson tweeted. Beneath the sparkling wit of Russell’s screenplay, “Silver Linings Playbook” is ostensibly about a blue collar family (including a terrific Robert De Niro as Cooper’s father) exhausted by a world seemingly stacked against their quest for happiness. Ultimately, the movie embraces the notion of small victories, a theme that links it to the two aforementioned works.
When established filmmakers hit on common themes, the connection between them can indicate a cultural trend. Each of these three achievements focus on reclaiming one’s goals by breaking the rules. In today’s post-recession climate, individualism wins out. It’s an unexpectedly triumphant notion that no matter how sad or discomfiting these visions can be, they also embrace what it means to wise up.
Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.