TIFF: Byzantium, The Iceman, and To the Wonder


Saoirse Ronan in Neil Jordan’s “Byzantium”

BYZANTIUM (***)…A rock solid Gothic horror film, looking for distribution Byzantium is a vampire thriller unlike any I have seen. Two women with a secret, the vicious and sexual Clara (Gemma Atherton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), a thoughtful young woman, move from town to town hunting prey realizing with a genuine terror that they too are being hunted. Forced to flee yet another home, they find themselves in a small coastal village that Clara decides will prove safe for a time. Eleanor has managed to survive two hundred years as a vampire with a conscience, feeding only on those who are ready for death, such as the old man at the beginning who has found pages of her story and asks her to end his existence on earth. Clara is up for anything and feeds on anyone and anybody she can stalk and kill. She takes risks but does so for her daughter (oh yes!) and latches on to a young man who has recently come into possession of a hotel which she turns into a brothel to make fast money. Eleanor finds herself falling for a young waiter dying of cancer, as she remembers how she and Clara came to be the creatures they are. Meanwhile those hunters are closing in on them and offer nothing more than death as they believe Clara has broken the rules of their secret society.

Jordan gives the film an interesting look, pure gothic, conjuring some images that are truly stunning. A raging series of rapids turns to blood as vampires are created, masses of bats fly into the air to announce a turning is happening, and he closes in on a single long fingernail that acts as a needle to pierce the jugular of the intended victim. Best of all is the manner he uses the soulful eyes of Ronan, so good in The Lovely Bones (2009) and Atonement (2007) and easily one of the best actresses of her generation. Her pale skin and deep eyes are indeed windows of the soul, and she allows us into them to transport us back and forth through time.

The performances of the actresses are superb, though Ronan clearly is the more confident actor as she does not have to go over the top as Atherton does form time to time. Very quietly, very calmly, Ronan essays her character, and gives a superb performance. Atherton is very good, very sexual, but every so often she crosses the line and goes into the upper ranges of hysteria.

I wish we knew more about the society that they have betrayed. Jordan does not really gives us much on that other than it is for men only, but they allow Clara to live so long as she does not betray the rules, which of course she does.
If the film gets distribution, as it should, I think it could be a solid hit, but I seriously doubt it will be any sort of awards contender.

Michael Shannon in “The Iceman”

THE ICEMAN (**)…A couple of years ago, on the A&E network there were a series of interviews with Richard Kuklinski, best known as the Iceman and responsible for more than one hundred killings. The interviews were terrifying because here was a man, a complete psychopath and sociopath who felt genuine love for his family, normally a contradiction for such minds. In fact the only people he really felt bad about letting down were his girls! The film has its share of problems, but the lead performance of Michael Shannon is not among them, he is terrifying and positively brilliant. His eyes are dead, void of emotion, of feeling of any kind. He kills without mercy, without apology and is very good at it. When a local mobster hires him to do hits for him he proves to be a lethal killer, but this cannot be any surprise to anyone because we learn that Richard was also killing animals when he was a child and murders a man over a pool game. When the mobster, played with barely contained rage by Ray Liotta lays him off, he starts doing hits for rival mobsters in the area and ends up at odds with the various criminal elements in New Jersey and New York. Finding himself targeted by the mob, his family threatened he lashes out and begins to pick off anyone who could prove a threat to him or his girls. When they come to his home he begins to understand the peril he has placed his girls in. Yet still he cannot get out of the life because he is in too deep, and addicted to it.

Shannon is an imposing presence in the film,  massive in size, but it’s the eyes, the icy stare that he levels at people who cross him, the lack of fear he has for any man, and the quiet seething that seems to come from him at all times. There is no doubt he loves his family, but are they his family or “things” that he possesses to allow him to feel normal? That is never really addressed. It is a performance that is superior to the film, which happens sometimes, and has resulted in Oscar attention for the actor. Shannon will indeed find himself an Oscar contender and rightly so, it’s a superbly dark performance about a man who was married not to his wife, but to violence.

Winona Ryder is very good as his wife, though I questioned how long she could not really figure out that something very terrible was going on with her husband. The mob visits her home, her daughter is the victim of a hit and run, and she never fights back or leaves, getting her kids to safety. Was she truly that blind or just that afraid of her husband, which would make sense? Was being taken care paramount to her, so much so that she would not question thirty thousand dollars cash in his coat pocket?? Ryder is very good as a character I felt was rather dim, and not the sort of protective mother one would expect.

There are several smaller roles essayed by well-known actors, James Franco among them as a dirty minded photographer who ends up at the wrong end of Kuklinski’s gun, the aforementioned Liotta, and oddest of all, though very good, David Schwimmer as a fool hardy tough guy who does the wrong thing once too often. In a sequence which lasts perhaps three minutes, Stephen Dorff, as Kuklinski’s jailed younger brother, displays more emotion in that small amount of time than he did a couple of years back in the entire running time of Somewhere (2010)!

I wanted to know more about the inner workings of the man’s mind, what made him tick and we see some abuse from his childhood, we hear how he killed animals, but I wanted more, what makes a man like this?? We may never know.

TO THE WONDER (*)…I am not among those who bow down at the altar of all things Malick. While I admired his early work, Badlands (1974) in particular, Days of Heaven (1978) is dull, dull, and dull. The Thin Red Line (1998) had elements of genius, and I quite liked The New World (2005). Last year after seeing The Tree of Life (2011) for the first time I was impressed, but a second and third viewing have lessened my opinion of the film considerably, and I am wondering if Malick is aware that movies are meant to be shared with an audience? Walking out of the film At the Wonder, the term “artistic masturbation” came to mind in thinking about Terrence Malick and just what he was attempting to achieve. For the first time since he came back to movies I got the feeling he was real contempt for his audience and perhaps even his actors. Actors first. The revere him but for the life of me I cannot think of why, because he does not appear to be any sort of actors director? Think back to the performance of Adrien Brody in The Thin Red Line (1998) which was almost entirely cut from the film, or the Sean Penn performance in The Tree of Life (2011) which also was cut down considerably. Ben Affleck has a lot to complain about with To the Wonder because he barely speaks in the movie, and is seen in so many tableaux shots one wonders why Malick even bothered casting a known actor in the part. It is a love story, and a tale of failed love yet the most passionless study of love I have ever encountered in a movie theater. Not once did I believe these people loved one another, ever have, or in fact were capable of love. Once again the picture is beautifully shot, a likely nominee for Best Cinematography, but I do not go to the movies to look at still images, and this film is filled with them. I get that people in marriages can be in pain, I understand that they sometimes look back to the past and wonder what might have been, but do they only think about it??? Does no one act upon it?? Why do the couples in Malick’s films not talk?? Communication is so much a part of good relationships, and bad ones, and yet the people in this film do not speak to one another. They stand around and looked pained, and I will tell you, the audience leaving the theater looked mighty pained as well.