Monday, November 16, 2009

2009 Toronto International Film Festival - Update Five

Deliver Us From Evil  ****

September nineteenth 2009. The last movie I saw at the festival before rushing to the airport was 'Deliver Us From Evil', a film advertised in the programme as a 'smart, propulsive Danish thriller'. Tickets go fast at the festival, and I am in general pleased with the movies I had picked a week ahead of the start of TIFF 2009. And I had evidently saved one of the best for the last.

Consider a man driving a commercial truck down a deserted road as he is chugging alcohol.  One hand on wheel, he bends down to retrieve something from under the seat next to him, and then hears a sickening thud. That sound of having run over something; or somebody. Recognizing that the woman he has killed is the beloved wife of the unofficial mayor of his hometown, he decides to frame this tragedy on the one person in town who would be the easiest target. Thus starts the movie 'Deliver Us From Evil', at a brisk pace, introducing its characters through a clever set of scenes set in an idyllic little seaside town in Denmark. 

It is certain then that the film is going to be a morality play. But perhaps also a thriller. And perhaps also a keenly observed study of specific characters. And perhaps a commentary on xenophobia. As it moved along, it was not obvious to me though as to which of these it was going to primarily be in its conclusion. And then about halfway through the movie a scene comes along where the clouds build ominously in the darkening evening sky and the background music screeches to a terribly jolting crescendo that takes the foreboding visual to its full expression - and then, about half a mile further. And while one part of me could not believe how much of a cliche this was (literally, dark clouds gathering in the sky!), the other part was shocked at how effective this was. Overused movie conventions be damned, I was filled with delight. And I settled in my seat as I realized with crystalline clarity what this movie was going to be about after all. Honestly, I live for moments like this. When you realize with satisfaction that you are in the hands of a good storyteller.

Publicity still for 'Deliver Us From Evil' from TIFF 2009

A bit more about the story. The cast of characters includes Johannes, his wife Pernille and their two kids who have all recently moved from the city to a small town, a town where everyone seems to know each other. There is Alain, the child-like Bosnian refugee who has lost his family in civil war, and is employed by Johannes to do odd jobs at his home. There is the older Ingmar, who is more or less the town's head, respected by all, and his wife Anna who is liked even more by the townsfolk. Johannes' brother Lars is everything he is not: a hard-drinking, hard-living, twisted soul of a man who would be a caricature of evil, if he were not also so frighteningly real. And credit goes here to all of the actors for making these individuals akin to someone you might actually know. Lars' pregnant girlfriend is, as one reviewer put it, an open wound through much of the movie. I have not revealed anything so far that is not outlined in the first few minutes of the movie. While driving his truck, it is Lars who runs over Anna biking on the road on the day of a local town celebration. And this sets into motion a series of events that would have you thinking you are ahead of the movie. But you are not. All of the characters get pulled into the whirlpool: Johannes, Ingvar, Lars, Alain, and Pernille. And the events domino one into another in a controlled procession until the movie takes off into perfect flight at about about the halfway mark. [SPOILER WARNING: And it is at this point that it becomes evident that the movie is going to be an epic, bloody showdown between a man (presumably) in the right and the rest of the world gone mad].

I would never have guessed this walking into this film, but in terms of its theme, it has commonality with 'The Reader" from last year. Both movies I believe are about how far a person should go to turn a blind eye to what they know is completely and morally wrong. Both movies depict extreme examples of human failings in this regard. 'Deliver Us From Evil' works just fine as a rock-solid thriller. But the reason why it registers as something more is because even as it gets its feet completely wet within the conventions of a traditional suspense movie, it dares to ask unpleasant questions that most movies would rather ignore: When does the need for communal unity and preservation of tradition lapse into xenophobia ? What if your devout faith asks you to join hands with others in doing something unspeakable?  In many ways, this very well made thriller shows how easily the sort of horror depicted in this movie could happen anywhere in the world. And has actually been happening for a long, long time.  I suspect this is the reason this film will find a wider audience.

This is visually a stylish movie. The entire film appears to have been shot in a bleached, sun-burned palette, sometimes almost seeming Black and White. This complements the Danish countryside well. 

There was one aspect to the movie that I found troubling. It has to do with how comfortable the movie is with racial slurs. Perhaps the intent here was to simply be truthful about how people talk, and therefore just reflect reality. But there is a scene in the movie where a large group of people all begin to chant a racial slur, and it came off as particularly distasteful. Yes, I realize that it is eventually revealed that these individuals are truly heinous. But in the scene earlier in the film where it is repeated again and again, I worried about how audiences might take it. It is the old 'Borat' debate again. In a movie that spends a lot of time depicting hateful behavior, there is danger that some may take it at face value and not realize that the film is actually deeply contemptuous of it. I have chosen my words carefully and intentionally not brought up another issue that the film points a very harsh finger at; it is because there is no way to talk about it without giving away critical plot elements.

At the end of the day, this was a movie that made me giddy with its thriller elements, and has kept my brain active for months after I have seen it with the thorny moral questions it raises. Movies seldom deliver so gloriously on their intended promise, and it is worth applauding the director, Ole Bornedal for his achievement here.

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