For the Sundance enthusiast, returning to this film festival for the first time since January 2020 can be a half-comfortable, half-disturbing resumption of familiar rituals. Aside from the occasional masked face that peeks out from the usual parka-and-beanie ensemble, you’re unlikely to be able to convince yourself that nothing has really changed, that a three-year pandemic blip hasn’t happened Seriously. After all, we’re meeting up as always in the same crowded lobby of the Eccles Theater, a 1,269-seat high school auditorium that serves as the main venue for the festival. And then we go again, heading to Main Street for a midnight movie at the Egyptian Theatre, because that’s what you do at Sundance, screw it up, and who doesn’t want to see Sarah Snook go on a scream rampage- Australian mom’s favorite Freak queen called “Run Rabbit Run”?
That film, which delivers a series of initially effective scares before devolving into “Run Rabbit Run Rinse Repeat,” may not have been the second coming of “Hereditary.” But I was happy to see it in a packed house at City Park regardless, between two friends whose ogles were nervous, along with Snook’s typically arresting performance, more than enough to keep me in my seat . But will you stay in yours? Shortly before Thursday night’s “Run Rabbit Run’s” premiere, a programmer announced that Netflix had acquired the film. Which means you’ll be able to watch it pretty soon in the comfort of your own home, although you have the luxury of skipping or even turning it off if you think it’s too scary or derivative or boring.
That’s the prerogative of the streaming addict, of course, and god knows Netflix releases more than its share of skips. But if the return to Sundance in person has shown us anything in the early days, it’s that even a film that might tempt you to fast-forward at home – or avoid it in the first place – can become something all the more touching, and even indelible, when projected on a big screen in front of a stoked crowd. Movies as strong as “Fair Play” and “Iris Dreams,” which entered the festival’s U.S. dramatic competition on Friday evening, might even convince you that their genius is possible, even with serious industry economics. movies — driven home by recent news of the widespread closure of Regal Cinemas theaters across the US, six of them in Southern California — tell a much more dire story.
But that’s enough existential doom-and-gloom for now. I come to this festival not to write premature obituaries for the cinema, but to testify to the promising signs of good health. And such signs were evident in “Fair Play,” a searing psychological thriller that marks writer-director Chloe Domont’s terrifying feature debut. It tells the story of Emily and Luke (Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich, both wonderful), two ambitious analysts at the same Manhattan hedge fund. They’re also a couple, secretly – a violation of company policy that becomes more complicated when Emily gets the big promotion they both assumed would go to Lúcás.
Why they took it in the first place is a mystery that Domont would spend the rest of this film examining, and if the answers are pretty clear — the fragility of the white male ego in general, the pervasiveness of financial-bro misogyny in particular. — not so the twists and turns that follow. Delightfully teasing between the perspectives of her protagonists while making it clear where her sympathies lie, Domont transforms a couple’s bedroom and a corporate boardroom into complementary brutal war zones. She also packs the film with memorable supporting players, including the great Eddie Marsan as a reptilian CEO and Rich Sommer as a much more menacing version of the schlubby adman he played on “Mad Men.”
That series, so acute in its understanding of an earlier era of corporate sexism, isn’t the only thing that might come to mind when watching “Fair Play.” Sometimes I flash back to “Margin Call,” that chilling drama about Wall Street on the eve of the 2008 financial crisis; at others my mind returned to “Bean Og Ghealta,” but in these eyes, Domont’s fearless consideration of male violence and the inclusion of women draws far more blood, both literally and figuratively. Could it be that those two films were ahead because I saw them both here in Park City for the first time? Maybe so. One of the pleasures of having a permanent festival is that you not only keep memories of (some of) the films you saw, but also where and when you saw them. If you’re lucky, you might even remember the charge they sent through the crowd, the sense of an exciting discovery being made nearby.
“Fair Play” delivered that charge, and so, to much sharper and slower effect, did “Iris Dreams,” a brutal study of physical extremity and psychological collapse based on a stunning lead performance from Jonathan Majors. For a patiently watched 124 minutes, Majors completely occupies the ripped abs, swollen arms and crushed soul of a bodybuilder named Killian Maddox – a name that Killian keeps repeating, in its entirety, throughout the film. He hopes that one day, after years of obsessively pumping iron, pounding 6,000 calories a day and injecting himself with steroids, he can finally grace the covers of fitness magazines. to bring men across America to life. It’s a dream — shot in hypnotic gauzily long stretches of toned male bodies stretching and standing under chandelier lights — defiantly flies in the face of the trauma, poverty and barely moderated rage that defines Killian in it.
The repetition of “Killian Maddox” works its own chilling effect on the audience, partly because the first four letters spell “kill,” and partly because filmmaker Elijah Bynum clearly wants us to think of a sociopath-antihero another unforgettably named, namely Travis Bickle. “Taxi Driver”, a classic that American filmmakers never have a problem with, is often invoked, and at times obvious to the point of ritual, from the ill-advised date Killian goes on with a sweet co-worker (Haley Bennett) to the sight of him buying and collecting firearms. That sequence and others, which we only dared to see word bubbles like “massive” and “incel deranged” floating around Killian, tied my own stomach muscles free of definition in knots.
But Bynum also engages in a provocative inquiry into Killian’s capacity for violence, in the long and dramatic span of his narrative — a capacity he repeatedly acknowledges and questions by having Killian play out a murderous fantasy, now and again. , just drag it. back from the bank. This kind of bait-and-switch can get tiring during the film’s long, two-hour run, but it’s also rooted in legitimate questions. How much truth can we glean from Killian’s own often criminal record, especially given the over-aggressive policing we see him subjected to? Is he more or less of a threat to society than, say, the racist white men who defeated him, after a series of ever-increasing changes?
In these moments, Killian’s body – which is also, irreducibly and inseparable, Majors’ body – becomes a hypnotic visual spectacle and a kind of argumentative vessel, one that absorbs the default fears and assumptions of Black men in America . Those assumptions will certainly continue to be debated — though I don’t think Majors’ performance will be as good — as this maddeningly funny and very funny vision makes its way through City Park and hopefully beyond. .