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Toronto 2013: Labor Day, Dallas Buyers Club, 12 Years A Slave

Posted on Wednesday September 11, 2013, 19:47 by Damon Wise in Words From The Wise
Toronto 2013: Labor Day, Dallas Buyers Club, 12 Years A Slave

Going into Toronto, at the top of my to-see list was Jason Reitman's Labor Day, the director's first foray into straight drama. Reitman's comedies are usually character-based, so this seemed to be no bad thing, especially with the casting of Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin in the leads. I have to say the result is somewhat disappointing, especially since it is clear that Reitman can certainly handle the required shift in tone, and the film's better moments involve silence and a growing sense of tension. However, I don't think too many audiences will buy into the storyline, which promises a slick, Stand By Me-like tale of a boy's Last Summer Of Childhood but actually delivers a rather creaky melodrama that veers wildly between romantic licence and outright implausibility.

It begins in the supermarket, where Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith) is shopping with his introverted divorced mother Adele (Winslet). The boy is accosted by a stranger, Frank (Brolin), who gruffly obliges Adele to take him back to her home so that he can recover from an injury sustained after jumping through a hospital window. Frank, it transpires, is a murderer, but from the soft-hued flashbacks that punctuate the film we soon get the idea that he's not, you know, an actual murderer murderer. This is the first hint that things are about to go awry in the movie; next thing, Frank is washing up, sweeping the yard and changing the oil in Adele's car, until a corner is turned when the runaway con is revealed to be an excellent pastry chef too. Unsurprisingly, Adele starts to fall for Frank's multi-tasking new man charms, initially to the delight of Henry, who badly needs a father figure.

That this happens at all is a little far-fetched, but the fact that it only seems to take a weekend is indicative of what's not quite so good about this otherwise well-played and well-crafted movie. If you try hard enough, you might see a little dash of Douglas Sirk in it, with the film's central couple recalling the frustrated lovers played by Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in There's Always Tomorrow. If you're not so forgiving, the sentimentality is apt to stick in the craw, a situation not helped by an unnecessary coda that takes schmaltz into a whole new dimension.

One of the main Toronto exclusives that skipped Venice is Dallas Buyers Club, the new film from Jean-Marc Vallée, a mid-’80s-set drama that stars Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodruff, a Texan electrician whose passions for sex, booze and drugs lead to infection with HIV after a one-stand with a junkie prostitute. The shocking paparazzi images of McConaughey's cadaverous look that appeared in the press recently are a sobering reflection of his performance here. Like Christian Bale in The Machinist, he is beyond gaunt, yet at the same time an electrifying, galvanising presence.

At first it seems pretty clear which way this film will go – like Philadelphia, it will see an avowed heterosexual and deeply homophobic man confront his fears and learn the value of compassion. Well, it does, but not in that same artfully contrived way – the big surprise in Vallée's film is how matter-of-fact it all is, and though by the end Ron is in business with a flouncing transvestite named Rayon (Jared Leto), this is not that movie where the hard man mellows; by the end, Ron is still every bit the cantankerous curmudgeon, this time focusing his anger on the massed ranks of Big Pharma and the FDA, whose attempts to regulate the treatment of Aids patients using expensive and toxic drugs he tries to undercut by setting up a borderline-legal “buyers club” selling alternative medicine.

For me, Dallas Buyers Club was the first green shoot of awards season at TIFF this year: McConaughey is especially strong for a Best Actor nod as Woodruff, but don't under-estimate Leto's chances as the flaky, flirtatious but really rather fearless Rayon. It's a tough sell for Best Picture, but Vallée's film could be the sleeper of the season, if word of mouth gives it the all-important Hurt Locker factor.

Much more poised for awards buzz is Steve McQueen's pre-Civil War drama 12 Years A Slave (pictured), which reteams him with Michael Fassbender, who plays a secondary but significant supporting role. The real standout here, though, is Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose profile will skyrocket after this powerful and demanding film. However, although McQueen's film has ticked so many of the right boxes that the media have practically handed it the Best Picture Oscar already, 12 Years A Slave is not an assured winner. Technically, it is up to McQueen's usual high standards, and the ensemble cast is incredible (a SAG nomination is highly likely). But this is a very hard watch, not simply because it draws on such violent and emotive history but because its structure is so unforgiving and unrelenting. As the timeframe in the title suggests, there is some light at the end of the tunnel, but McQueen's film does not have the epic, classic sweep of, say, Amistad, rather the visceral, intimate nightmare feel of his feature debut Hunger: at its base, it, too, is about a man that only has one thing left in the world – his own body.

McQueen's masterstroke is to portray the story's protagonist, Solomon Northup, not as a hero but as a somewhat mild-mannered, middle-class family guy, a free man and musician who is offered work in a travelling circus and, after a night on the tiles, wakes up in chains, his identity taken from him. Solomon is nobody now, a chattel to be bought and sold, and the implications of that become horribly clear as he passes through the hands of a rondelay of slave traders and plantation owners. Like him, we have no idea how much time is passing, and the effect is profoundly disturbing. The situation becomes increasingly Kafka-esque, with Solomon shell-shocked by what he sees around him – the objectifying whites who treat blacks with contempt, and the cynical blacks who collaborate with their white paymasters. In this instance, comparisons with Holocaust stories are entirely apt; after the empowerment fantasy of Django Unchained, Solomon's chilling passivity brings home the true unvarnished horrors of the antebellum South.

It's tough to know what the film's prospects will be on the basis of one festival outing, since the film's forbidding subject matter, cyclical structure and explicit violence – the whippings are the most sustained since John Hillcoat's The Proposition – are not the stuff of crossover. Nevertheless, McQueen has created some breathtaking images here, indelibly personified in the character of slave girl Patsey (the terrific Lupita N'Yong'O) – like the girl in the red coat of Schindler's List, the very symbol of innocence destroyed, crushed by man's will to evil.

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