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Toronto '09: Day 3: Horrors

Posted by Wesley Morris  September 12, 2009 05:47 PM

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When the end of the world comes, it would be a small comfort to spend it in the custody of Viggo Mortensen. In "The Road," which premiered here this afternoon (after bowing out of last year's festival), Old Viggo weathers an unspecified apocalyptic event, seeking refuge with his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), as they make their way from the hinterlands to the coast, fending off starvation and possible cannibals. They have not-insignificant discussions about dying and whether this journey is even worth taking in the first place.

The film is based on Cormac McCarthy's book, and the Australian director John Hillcoat does an effective job of leaving you with a sense of hopeless desolation. Whatever this disaster was, its toll feels complete. More than once today my companion cringed and jumped and gasped at the suspense Hillcoat constructs. She's a little easier than I am in the squirm department, though Mortensen playing doctor on himself got me to cover my eyes.

More so than any piece of commercial hackwork that studios excrete every week, this is a horror film. It offers a dire scenario and dares those characters who survive it to persist. As you watch father and son complain of hunger, push their shopping cart, and become filthier by the scene, you wonder in dread, "Could I do this? Would I want to?" That feeling was more intense reading McCarthy's book, which, of course, has the crucial feature of McCarthy's billowing language. The movie is partially narrated by Mortensen, and Hillcoat tries to establish a tone of despair to stand the movie on its own. And for the most part he succeeds.

But despite the talk of death, the fact of human savagery, and some appalling dental work, this still feels somehow tasteful and reassuring. (For an unadulterated version of the same, there is Michael Haneke's underappreciated "The Time of the Wolf.") Nick Cave co-wrote the score, and I didn't realize he could compose such relentless heart-tugging pianowork for so much big bad news. The dreamt flashbacks to Charlize Theron as the wife and mother further disrupt the atrocity, even though the turn of events has sapped her of her will to live. A big-budget prettiness creeps into the art direction and special effects. It's true you can see dirt and blood, but it smells a good deal like perfume.

That was not the case earlier this morning. The documentary "Presumed Guilty" takes us inside the Mexican criminal-justice system and shows how it rigged to fail those enter it. In Mexico, the burden of proof falls on the accused, so many women and men wind up imprisoned either for crimes they didn't commit or because they or their lawyers failed to demonstrate sufficient exonerating evidence.

The movie focuses on one young man's arrest and incarceration for a gang murder. He claims he was a scapegoat. At the very least there's reasonable doubt. But in Mexico, the police and prosecutors are incentivized only to arrest and indict. Often a judge will convict based solely on the testimony of a witness or two. The new trial takes place in the prison, out in the bureaucratic open (imagine going to court in the middle of the RMV), with the witnesses speaking directly to the prisoner, who talks from behind a gate. As imperfect as the criminal-justice system is in the United States, what we see and discover here is especially infuriating and dismaying. As someone says in anger and frustration, "Why have laws at all?"

dorian%20gray.jpgBetween those films, there was Oliver Parker's "Dorian Gray," a thoroughly unnecessary adaptation of Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorain Gray." The movie casts Ben "Prince Caspian" Barnes as the accursedly ageless Dorian, and watching the rest of the cast (Colin Firth, Ben Chaplin, Rebecca Hall) gawk and gasp at his beauty is a little like watching people mistake a plastic tray of Lean Cuisine for dinner at a four-star restaurant. Accordingly, Barnes looks microwave-ready. The film, meanwhile, has a "Batman"-load of canted angles and the sort of sound effects you hear in a "Saw" movie. It's so labored and camp-free that the bon mots feel plucked from a book of quotations. Wilde's lightness disguised tragedy. This movie drops tragedy like a piano -- and misses. And whoever invented the portrait-cam ought to be doing time in a Mexican prison or running from cannibals in "The Road."

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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