FAMILIAR PLEASURES AT TORONTO: “YOU’RE NEXT” AND “SLEEPLESS NIGHT”
When you go to a film festival, you’re hoping for the new — films with a radical cinematic language, or content you’ve never seen before. A film that might have provided that to me at the Toronto International Film Festival has proven elusive. (I missed, for example, Steve McQueen’s Shame — the only oversold press and industry screening I’ve encountered so far.)
But sometimes in your quest for new sensations you can be gobsmacked by the familiar, especially when it’s done very, very well. Indeed, the two most satisfying films I’ve seen so far at the festival are straight-up and smartly executed genre films — low-budget ones — that excite due to both genuine thrills but also canny, fresh attitudes towards their stories.
Adam Wingard has been making fresh and satisfying genre movies for years. His Pop Skull is a twitchy, glitchy take on addiction made for only $3,000 that suggested a cross between Lodge Kerrigan and Gaspar Noe. Last year’s A Horrible Way to Die grafted 12-step psychology onto the story of a serial killer. His new You’re Next, realized on a considerably larger budget, is more straightforward — a noir-inflected home-invasion thriller in the vein of the recent The Strangers. What’s new, though, is the balance between gore and humor.
After a chillingly violent preamble, the movie opens with an indie-film staple: the family reunion scene, in which several sets of sibling couples return home for the holidays. The parents couldn’t be nicer, but rivalries exist among the kids. (Joe Swanberg, one of several directors featured as actors in this film, is most engagingly smarmy as the strait-laced, passive-aggressive creep.) And then, just as dinner arguments escalate, a crossbow arrow slices through the window, killing one of the dinner guests.
What follows is both believable and relentless, as the kids and parents bunker down and try to save their lives from unknown, animal-masked attackers. The girlfriend of one of the brothers, played by a plucky Shami Vinson, emerges as the heroine; she grew up on a survivalist compound and is, in the words of her surprised boyfriend, “really, really good at killing people.” There are twists, of course, but also precise camerawork, Wingard’s queasily disturbing sound design and consistent wit, elevating this film about similar themed gore fests. It’s a huge leap forward for Wingard, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a studio like LionsGate release this film on 1,000 screens.
Frederic Jardin’s Sleepless Night is a ticking-clock thriller, a hostage drama set against the backdrop of Parisian drug dealing and police corruption. The film opens with a pre-dawn shoot-out on the side streets of Paris in which two dirty cops abscond with a bag of heroin. When a crime boss figures out who did it, he kidnaps one of the cop’s kids and demands his heroin in return. The cop (an excellent Tomar Sisley), still bleeding from a knife-wound he suffered in the drug robbery, heads to the boss’s club to get his son back, but he’s followed by other cops, and the heroin goes missing… At this point the film settles into the nightclub as its location, with the non-stop action ricocheting through the mammoth space. Fights spill from crowded dance floors (indeed, given the sizes of the crowds, this is a Paris without certificates of occupancy or fire inspectors) to kitchens into private backroom bars. There are plenty of doublecrosses, great stunt work, and a consistently imaginative use of the club and all of its creative possibilities. In one bravura sequence, the fleeing cop escapes by blending into a dance floor that has suddenly arranged itself into a conga-line dancing to “Another One Bits the Dust.”
Shot by Eastwood d.p. Tom Stern, Sleepless Night has a gritty, no-frills quality that is refreshing in an era in which so many genre films are burdened down by gimmicky camera tricks. Most impressively, though, is the way that Jardin builds our sympathy for his bleeding-out protagonist. At the film’s opening he’s a risible corrupt cop, but as it progresses, we see — and care for — him as a concerned dad. But don’t worry — the family melodrama is kept in check. True to its name, Sleepless Night never stops moving, serving up brutal twists and betrayals even into the waking hours.