THE BACK PAGES

The killer within

As Toronto’s film festival unveils the new fall line, violence is all the rage

Brian D. Johnson September 24 2007
THE BACK PAGES

The killer within

As Toronto’s film festival unveils the new fall line, violence is all the rage

Brian D. Johnson September 24 2007

The killer within

THE BACK PAGES

film

As Toronto’s film festival unveils the new fall line, violence is all the rage

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Every September, after a summer of cartoon blockbusters, Hollywood sheds its superhero costume and tries to get serious. The occasion is the Toronto International Film Festival, which trots out the fall fashions in Oscar-pedigree pictures. And over the past week, as the cameras blazed for Jodie and George and Brad and Matt and Woody and Cate, critics searched for the Zeitgeist in the dark. And this year it was obvious: the screen was awash in blood. This is not your usual kick-ass carnage. What’s remarkable is not just the amount of violence, but the quality of it—and where it’s coming from. It’s grisly, real and hard to watch. It erupts out of nowhere, leaving a pool of darkening blood—and a burden of moral consequence that feels almost biblical.

Typically, the killer is not a professional, but an ordinary citizen—someone whose world has blown apart, and is suddenly trapped on unfamiliar ground, taking aim at an incomprehensible enemy. Whether it’s a U.S. soldier in Iraq rationalizing rape or a vigilante bent on vengance, he (or she) is neither hero nor villain. Just an unknown soldier in a noman’s land of moral uncertainty.

The patterns are uncanny: in The Brave One, Jodie Foster plays a woman who is assaulted in the heart of Manhattan by a gang that beats her fiancé to death, steals her dog and leaves her bloody and unconscious. Once out of hospital, she walks into a police station to review her case and hits a wall of bureaucratic indifference. Next thing you know she’s packing an illegal handgun and conducting a vigilante reign of terror—wasting unsavoury strangers, getting away with it, and getting hooked on the com-

bustion of fear and rage that’s ignited with the simple squeeze of a trigger.

Directed by Canadian director Paul Haggis, In the Valley ofElah stars Tommy Lee Jones as a retired soldier whose son goes AWOL after serving in Iraq. The boy turns up murdered, dismembered and burnt to charred carrion meat in the New Mexican desert. Like Foster’s character, the father loses his patience in a police station and takes the law into his own hands—using his son’s halfmelted cellphone to unravel a puzzle that will lead back to a war crime in Iraq.

In the unswervingly grim Reservation Road,

Joaquin Phoenix is a New England professor who watches his young son being killed by a hit-and-run driver. He, too, gives up on the police, and launches his own private manhunt, with a handgun at the ready—but, unlike the audience, he has no idea that his lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) is the guilt-ridden culprit.

Among TIFF’s premieres were more than half a dozen movies about the war in Iraq and the war on terror—from documentaries such as Heavy Metal in Baghdad and Body of War to dramas such as Redacted, Rendition and Nothing is Private. But the widening trail of blood that leads from 9/11 to America’s military debacle in the Middle East seems to have seeped into a variety of dramas unrelated to the war. You can smell it in the cold-blooded slaughter of westerns like No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford—epic visions of an

America that’s lost its moral compass.

You can also pick up the scent in movies as far-flung as David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises and Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. The former is about the Russian mob in London, the latter about a dangerous romance in occupied Shanghai, but both feature prolonged and horrific scenes of death-by-stabbing that take your breath away. Cronenberg told me he was trying to show “that killing

®is really hard work.” In Ang Lee’s movie, that’s especially true given that the killers are amateurs—a nervous band of student revolutionaries. Everywhere you look, innocents are picking up knives, guns or bombs. The centrepiece of Atonement, based on Ian McEwan’s delicate novel, is a massive wartime spectacle of bloodied humanity on the beach at Dunkirk. Even Across the Universe, an innocuous pageant of Beatles fantasia, converts

the strawberry from Strawberry Fields Forever into a stylized grenade.

Yet on the whole, the new wave of movie violence feels anything but gratuitous. What gives it such grave resonance is not the damage it does to the victim, but the pain it inflicts on the perpetrator. In that sense, unconsciously at least, it reflects the haunted soul of a nation at war—the killer catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror with blood on his hands. In The Assassination of Jesse James,

Brad Pitt deflates the romance of the legendary outlaw by portraying him as a cold sadist, capable of a torturing a young boy. He’s a pro, a frontier terrorist. But his callow assassin—an obsessed fan who infiltrates the James gang to make his mark on history—is a desperate amateur. Played by a wonderfully skittish, insecure Casey Affleck, he’s unable to erase the public stain of cowardice and betrayal from his conscience, even after re-enacting the assassination hundreds of times onstage.

By the end of this long, slow and diabolically drawn-out epic, the line between hero and villain become indecipherable.

If Robert Ford had the technology, he might well have tried to capture his crime on video. In the digital age, violence goes hand in hand with voyeurism. A member of the gang that assaults Foster and her fiancé in The Brave One gleefully shoots the incident on a camcorder. Salvaged cellphone images of an Iraq atrocity lie at the root of Elah’s intrigue. And Brian De Palma’s Redacted is constructed from faux-camcorder footage

Designed to disturb, this new wave of violence feels anything but gratuitous

shot by U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

The fact that De Palma, a legendary purveyor of casual cruelty, has made a message movie about an American war crime indicates how deep this new moral vision of violence goes. He’s been there before—dramatizing Vietnam atrocities with Casualties of War. But Redacted is a faster, dirtier production, a $5-million movie with a no-name cast that was conceived at last year’s Toronto festival with producers Simone Urdí and Jennifer Weiss (the team behind Sarah Polley’s Away From Her).

Shot in Jordan, and composed as a mosaic of Web clips and battle-front video, the movie is based on a real-life episode in March 2006, when American soldiers raped a teenage girl near Baghdad and then killed her family. Because the case is still being prosecuted, De Palma had no choice but to reconfigure the story as fiction. “Everything in the movie has a footnote on the Internet,” he told me. “That’s where I got all the ideas.”

Hollywood is often slow to catch up to the Zeitgeist. Oliver Stone’s Platoon didn’t appear until 1986, more than a decade after the war ended. De Palma’s own Casualties of War came even later, in 1989. But images of Vietnam atrocities found their way more readily into media, says De Palma. “When we saw

pictures of what was happening, that got us out into the streets. The American people are not seeing those images now. They’re out there—everyone has a camera and an Internet connection—but they’re not in the mainstream media.”

Even with the high profile of Iraq movies at the Toronto festival, De Palma sees it as a marginal trend. “It’s on the fringes. When they say Hollywood is putting out all these movies about Iraq, every one has a very specific story and is made outside the traditional methods of financing.” Despite its putative liberalism, Hollywood is not on a mission to do the media’s job; it’s out to make money. Audiences will pay to see stuff blow up on the big screen, but stark tales of rape and torture tend to die at the box office.

Yet some of the more seductive dramas exploring the pathology of violence could find an audience and loom large at Oscar time. And in this landscape of rueful vengeance, Tommy Lee Jones stands like a weathered totem of America’s vanishing honour. He’s the bereaved father who fondles the American flag like a sad shroud in Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah; and he’s the venerable sheriff trying to fathom the soulless efficiency of Javier Bardem’s psychopath in the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men.

After scripting a pair of vintage war epics for Clint Eastwood—Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima—with Elah, Haggis brings the Iraq war home on an intimate, compelling scale that’s bound to strike a chord. And after a string of smug, self-satisfied farces, the Coens finally step up to the plate with a magisterial thriller that traverses dark comedy and brutal violence, then expands into a stirring meditation on the death of compassion in America. When the jokers who made Fargo— once happy to get a laugh by feeding a body into a wood chipper—stop finding violence funny, you know that even in Hollywood the sky is getting dark. M