Three days worth of screenings and I’ve been struck, as I sometimes find myself here, by the intriguing allure of the festival’s tagline. For 2018, the idea is about defining TIFF. In other words, we get “TIFF is…” and frames where words and images tell the audience about the screenings, the philanthropy, the educational efforts, and finally, the marketing settles on TIFF being about “an experience.”
The festival most certainly is that – an experience I attempt to share with readers of Cincinnati CityBeat, Dayton CityPaper, and now this blog, as often as I can during my time here. But this year, in particular, I’m recognizing that the power of my experience comes through a thoughtfully-tended curation of my time.
Day three, for instance, has just begun, with an early screening of the new Steve McQueen film Widows, a triumphant reappearance by the Best Director nominee (12 Years a Slave dominated the festival five years ago and wound up snagging Oscars for Best Picture, Supporting Actress and Adapted Screenplay). A transplanted re-imaging of a British series, the film stars Viola Davis as the wife of a highly successful executor (Liam Neeson) of heists who dies, along with the members of his crew, attempting to steal millions of dollars from a corrupt candidate for alderman (Brian Tyree Henry) in Chicago. When the candidate and his dead-eyed brother (Daniel Kaluuya) put the screws to Davis, she recruits the wives of her husband’s team to take on his next job, a score big enough to settle the books all around, but no easy task since these women (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and newbie addition Cynthia Erivo) know nothing about heists beyond their own personal stakes.
What matters here though has less to do with the job – which, on the surface will recall everything from Set It Off to Ocean’s Eleven and a Fast & Furious movie minus the cars – and turns about to be interested in the politics of the moment and a great collection of actors sinking into their characters.
It would be simple, and not exactly wrong, to focus on Davis, who embraces her role like Denzel Washington did with Training Day, as an opportunity to transform every tic and gesture in the toolbox into something daringly new. We’ve seen Davis cry with the best of them and then turn those tears into a torrent with the force of a flash flood capable of scouring the land. Here, she’s shattered and angry, but gets to direct that energy into a plan that few female characters ever get the chance to execute.
I talked about the stakes, and they couldn’t be higher, but also merged with real-world problems – black lives and racial politics, spoken about in painfully blunt and truthful terms. Widows is more than a big money gambit and McQueen proves he’s not wasting his time or pulling a journeyman gig for a quick paycheck. And if Davis is able to use a little sleight of hand to steal a Best Actress nomination for a genre picture, who’s to say that’s wrong?
Robert Redford might have the chance to pull off a similar trick in what’s been touted as his final acting appearance in David Lowery’s The Old Man and the Gun, which I can’t escape since it’s got local appeal thanks to its use of the Greater Cincinnati region as a location.
I caught up with Lowery during the promotional effort supporting A Ghost Story, a haunting story about a spirit inextricably tied to a place. He seems to be exploring a variation on that theme with Old Man in a couple of ways.
We get Cincinnati as an anonymous Midwestern locale, forcing audiences to search for markers, but such attention fades in the face of Redford, who continues to exert his con man’s charm like a lethal weapon. It doesn’t hurt that he’s supported by Danny Glover, Tom Waits, and Sissy Spacek, but he doesn’t really need them. Redford is a one-man wrecking crew, stealing hearts with a rogue’s light, deft touch. We never forget the man’s greatest hits; they linger like a haunting refrain.
I found myself thinking about George Clooney’s performance in Out of Sight, where he played a similar bank robber who preferred to brandish a smile over a gun. That was a heavily plotted affair, a crackling crime fiction fever dream, whereas Old Man and the Gun soft-pedals and downshifts the drive, so that the journey matters more. It’s loosely based on a true story, but Lowery doesn’t seem too concerned with the details. Like genre conventions, such aspects can and should be ignored.
Remember, experience matters, but maybe the point is to highlight the fun.