Sundance is always a bit of a madhouse, but the first two days of this year’s edition have been even more like a slow-motion cattle stampede than usual. After getting shut out of gymnastics comedy The Bronze on Thursday night—something of a blessing, judging from most reliable reports—I wound up spending a grand total of nearly three hours yesterday queueing for The Witch: A New England Folktale: 45 minutes in the morning, only to be turned away, and then two hours more when the festival hastily scheduled a second screening that night. That’s almost twice as long as the movie runs. And it was totally worth it, because The Witch is the sort of singular, crazily ambitious, utterly unforgettable film that Sundance should showcase but too often doesn’t. Little wonder that people were all but kicking shins to get into the theater at both screenings—a few select critics had apparently been given a sneak preview before the festival began, and word of something special quickly spread. Whatever one’s stereotypical conception of a “Sundance movie” may be (and such stereotypes are rooted in truth), this ain’t it.
Set in 1630, and written by director Robert Eggers (no apparent relation to Dave) with close attention to the era’s archaic speech patterns, The Witch plays like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible reconceived as a genuine, unrelenting descent into darkness. Early on, the infant son of a family living in solitude at the edge of a forest is snatched, by a person or creature unknown, right in the middle of a game of peek-a-boo. Accusations and recriminations are tossed around among the father, the mother, and the four remaining children, with special emphasis on teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Things get increasingly horrific after the eldest son, too, disappears in the woods, and while Eggers maintains some ambiguity about whether glimpses of supernatural events are real or imagined, the distinction hardly seems to matter after a while. Unlike The Crucible, The Witch isn’t trying to make a statement, or draw pointed parallels to current events—it’s trying to freak the living shit out of the audience, and succeeding mightily. The intensity, which begins at a level that’s already higher than many horror films achieve, builds to a fever pitch, with every member of the small ensemble (including two Game Of Thrones vets, Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson, as the parents) contributing to the overall sense of barely controlled hysteria. Sundance opted to place the film in the dramatic competition rather than in its Midnight section—a welcome vote of confidence that suggests they think Eggers is going places. Judging from The Witch, it’s hard to argue.
Also in the competition this year, and already somewhat established, is Craig Zobel—his previous film, Compliance, inspired one of the most hostile post-screening Q&A sessions I’ve ever witnessed. Z For Zachariah, his latest effort, is only likely to be controversial among fans of the cult novel by Robert C. O’Brien (Mrs. Frisby And The Rats Of NIMH). For a while, the movie follows the book reasonably closely, introducing a young woman named Ann (Margot Robbie) who’s survived some devastating event, most likely a nuclear war, that's apparently wiped out most of humanity. The valley where Ann lives has a geographical anomaly that protects it from radiation, and she’s alone there until the arrival of John (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a government scientist in a radiation suit who's ecstatic to find breathable air at long last. Here, screenwriter Nissar Modi begins introducing new elements to the story, creating a conflict between devoutly religious Ann and solidly secular John, as they argue about whether or not to tear down the chapel Ann's father built in order to use its lumber to build a water wheel that could provide electricity. Still, the tentative relationship between the two survivors seems entirely credible, thanks to expert work by Robbie (in a role that bears no resemblance to the one she played in Wolf Of Wall Street) and Ejiofor (in a role that seems completely colorblind until it's suddenly, hilariously not anymore).
Then Chris Pine shows up as Caleb. “Wait, as who?” asks everyone who's read the book. Caleb is entirely the movie's invention: a coal miner who managed to stay alive for months deep underground, and now stumbles onto Ann’s farm and is invited by her to rest there for a while. (He has a bit of radiation sickness, not fatal.) While it’s entirely possible to take a novel's basic scenario and create something new and extraordinary from it—Jonathan Glazer and his co-writer, Walter Campbell, pulled it off recently with Michel Faber’s Under The Skin—Caleb’s arrival in Z For Zachariah turns what had been an intriguing post-apocalyptic dual-character study into a jejune love triangle. Ann and John had been gradually falling for each other, but now Ann finds herself torn between the ardent man of science who's eager to reboot civilization and the strapping fella who shares her faith and moral values. Meanwhile, John and Caleb trade suspicious and smug looks (respectively), and Zobel twice suggests, via coy framing or unreadable facial expressions, that one man is about to murder the other, claiming Ann as his prize. This is just about the least interesting way to explore the end of the world, which is presumably why O’Brien eschewed it. The book as written could have made a fascinating film; why Zobel and Modi made it more banal is a mystery.
The only other film I’ve managed to see so far, The Summer of Sangaile, suffers from a similar abrupt nosedive at roughly its midpoint. Sundance doesn’t tend to land the best foreign films for its World Cinema sections—anything truly outstanding is likely to premiere at Berlin, Cannes, Locarno, or Venice—and this Lithuanian lesbian romance, directed by Alanté Kavaïté, is a good example of talent that isn’t yet quite ready for prime time. The central relationship, between timid Sangaile (Julija Steponaityté, whose surname looks something you’d shout at a cab driver) and the more assertive Auste (Aisté Dirziuté), is beautifully limned in the early going, and Kavaïté has a gift for lyrical sensuality; a scene in which Auste measures Sangaile for a dress, wrapping her tape measure around shyly covered body parts, is intensely erotic. But Sangaile has not one but two shameful secrets: She cuts herself, using the blade of a pair of scissors along the underside of her forearms, and she suffers from terrible vertigo, even though her dream is to become a barnstorming pilot like the ones she avidly watches perform near her home. Her romance with Auste magically solves both of those problems, and the film gets increasingly silly as it becomes more and more overtly therapeutic. Despite hailing from a country not often represented at film festivals—this might be the first Lithuanian film I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a whole lotta films—The Summer Of Sangaile is very much a typical “Sundance movie,” to the extent that such a rote beast exists. Tellingly, I had no trouble whatsoever getting into the screening.
Tomorrow: Noel Murray on the highly anticipated new film—premiering just four months after his last film, which hasn’t even opened yet!—from Noah Baumbach.