TIFF delivers thrills and chills

Nothing cranks adrenalin like a captive audience

Warner Bros. Pictures

In space, no one can hear you scream. Or so they say. But we can hear Sandra Bullock breathing fast and hard. The sound of a rookie astronaut adrift in a black void. Panicking. A catastrophic accident has cut her loose from the hull of a space station 400 km above the Earth. Radio contact with Houston has been lost. Her oxygen is running out. Condensation is forming inside her helmet. Behind the glass, her eyes are wide with fear. The rest of the crew is dead, except for a veteran astronaut stuck out there with her (George Clooney), whose bedside voice is inside her helmet, urging her to calm down before she suffocates in her own carbon dioxide. A makeshift couple, clinging to each other by a tether, they are as alone in the world as two people possibly can be.

That’s the opening sequence of Gravity, an electrifying suspense thriller that wowed audiences and critics last week at the Toronto International Film Festival. Directed by Mexico’s Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Y Tu Mamá También), it seems to invent its own genre—a 3D bungee jump of a movie that cranks adrenalin levels to scary heights, amid vistas of transcendent beauty reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life. It literally takes your breath away. And it reminds us why we still go to the movies in an age when there are so many reasons not to.

Lately, major filmmakers, notably Steven Soderbergh, have declared that cinema is in crisis. As the studios devote themselves to marketing “tentpole” blockbusters driven by comic book franchises, Hollywood is losing interest in movies that boldly go where no movie has gone before. And some serious filmmakers, notably Soderbergh, are deserting cinema for the creative freedom of television. But Gravity is one of several major films at TIFF that seems to reverse the trend, and challenge the notion of the audience as passive spectators.

Sitting in a packed theatre and being drawn into the screen, rather than assaulted by it, requires an act of surrender—quite the opposite of navigating a remote, or a mouse. Nowhere is that more palpable than in a movie about characters who are mortally trapped. As a captive audience, we share their claustrophobia. And, among an exceptionally strong crop of films at TIFF, some of the most powerful dramas conveyed the visceral experience of captivity.

They ranged from Ron Howard’s Rush, in which Formula One driver Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) is trapped for almost a minute as a 400? inferno engulfs his car, to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, about a free black New Yorker (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is drugged, shackled and sold to pick cotton in the South. They also include a pair of studio pictures from Canadian directors: Jason Reitman’s Labor Day, the story of an escaped convict (Josh Brolin) who holds a mother and son in their house; and Prisoners, Denis Villeneuve’s gripping drama of an apoplectic father (Hugh Jackman) who kidnaps and tortures a mentally disabled suspect after his daughter and another young girl are abducted.

Prisoners, which will be released next week, is a gripping descent into darkness that runs almost 2½ hours, with scenes of gruelling intensity. Catapulting Villeneuve into the major league of A-list directors—and reminiscent of David Fincher thrillers such as Se7en, Zodiac and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—its maze-like intrigue contains multiple prisoners. At some point, everyone is trapped: the abducted children, the brutalized suspect (Paul Dano), the vengeful father and the frustrated detective trying to crack the case (Jake Gyllenhaal). But the ultimate trap is the movie itself, as a wall of tension closes in on the audience. “I was at the premiere of Prisoners,” says Villeneuve, “and heard 2,000 people scream at the same time. I turned to my wife and said, ‘I love cinema!’ It’s the sharing of emotions together, and it’s collective. It’s one of the last communions we have.”

That communion takes on a profound intimacy when the audience engages with a character who’s in solitary confinement on the big screen. In Gravity, Bullock is stranded alone in space for much of the movie, like Tom Hanks in Cast Away but much less relaxed. And in J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost—an Oscar-pedigree drama that showed at Cannes and Telluride—Robert Redford is alone at sea for the entire movie, acting without dialogue as a solo sailor trying to save himself after his boat is wrecked by a storm.

Silence builds tension in an audience better than words, as Reitman realized in adapting Joyce Maynard’s 2009 novel Labor Day—its script has far less dialogue than any of his previous films. After the caustic irony of Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air and Young Adult, he’s made a movie that simmers with unspoken fear and passion. On a hot holiday weekend, a boy and his mother (Kate Winslet) are held hostage by a convicted killer who acts like the husband and father they never had. It’s a domestic pressure-cooker that engages the viewer more deeply than anything the director has done.

Reitman recognizes that his movie reflects the zeitgeist. “You have Gravity, where you’re stuck in space,” he says. “You have All Is Lost, where you’re stuck in the middle of the ocean. You have Prisoners, where you’re stuck in a hole in the ground—and then you have my film, where you’re stuck in a house, and stuck in your life.” Then he adds: “There’s a reason why James Cameron continues to go to the water. There’s something about holding your breath that’s very exciting, that reminds us of falling in love. The theatrical experience can put you in that bubble more than being on your couch at home.”

Some films actually try to reproduce the walled intensity of a live theatrical experience. That’s the case with August: Osage County, based on the Tony-winning stage hit by Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts. We are trapped in a house, and in a hellish family, after the funeral of a grandfather who has committed suicide. As dark secrets are stripped away, Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts pull out all the stops in a vicious mother-daughter catfight that has viewers gasping in shock.

We love to be made uncomfortable, up to a point. But with a landmark picture like 12 Years a Slave, a majestic memoir of a man struggling to maintain his dignity amid unspeakable cruelty, the discomfort can’t be so easily shaken off. Nothing can prepare the audience for what it sees. And it leaves the cinema in silence, a crushed congregation.

In a business that cranks out generic blockbusters trying to goose the market with the familiar and the formulaic, these festival movies are exceptions to the rule. They challenge the audience to bring something to the screen. But none so much as Visitors, a wordless, black-and-white, experimental film that premiered at TIFF with a score by Philip Glass performed live by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Its director, Godfrey Reggio, a former Catholic monk from New Orleans, is famous for the Qatsi trilogy, notably the groundbreaking Koyaanisqatsi, which pioneered a visual language that has influenced everything from commercials to music video.

Most of Visitors consists of faces in close-up, mutely staring into the camera in long, unbroken takes, as if returning the gaze of the audience. Subjects include adults, children and a gorilla from the Bronx Zoo. None of the subjects is coached, and the children are actually watching TV and playing video games, though a mirror makes it appear as if they’re staring directly into the lens. “In a conventional film, the rule is not to have the actors look at the audience,” says Reggio. “The whole point of this film is the reciprocal gaze—it’s about the audience watching the film. It’s like staring at a painting.” A painting that stares back at you.

Visitors, which is introduced by Soderbergh, unfolds as a trance-like meditation with just 74 edits, about one per minute. Most movies have a cut every few seconds. And most aim to trigger a unified response from the audience, but Soderbergh says Visitors does the opposite: “If you put 100 people in a room to watch it, you will get 100 different responses.”

This wild experiment—worlds removed from the Hollywood that created Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven franchise—may not be the future of film. But it suggests that cinema’s best hope may lie in rebooting the role of the audience, which holds the key to the magic, not just the market.

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