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Toronto 2012 days 4 and 5: Ben Affleck does Terrence Malick

Posted by Wesley Morris  September 12, 2012 06:32 PM

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The Act of Killing.jpgOccasionally at a film festival, you worry that you've seen it all before. Then you spend two hours watching old Indonesian paramilitary executioners star in a movie fantasia about the million and half murdered after the military overthrew the government in 1965 and 1966. The documentary, "The Act of Killing," offers no simple pleasures and operates at an enlightened level of moral and physical queasiness. The people who exited the movie this afternoon before it was over did so in time to run across the hall to see Joss Whedon directing his actor friends, at his house, in "Much Ado About Nothing." So who knows whether they left because they couldn't bear to watch another simulated strangling or because the screening schedule here can be cruel? But the full house that remained got to watch men continue to live comfortably among the families of their victims without introspection or credible fear of reprisal.

The director, Joshua Oppenheimer, spends most of his time with one former death squad leader, Anwar Congo, a thin, dapper, vain man who remembers his murderous exploits with what could be characterized as nostalgia. Congo was a petty gangster before the army tapped him and his friends to partake in genocide. When the film production reunites with one of his fellow exterminators, a more militant, chillingly remorseless man, Congo greets him with fondness. They even hold hands as they walk off the tarmac. In the reenactments, which were conducted and filmed at the moviemakers' behest but largely developed and carried out by its stars, Congo plays a suspected communist, and the suspense for me was whether the experience would ever take psychodramatic hold. Would revisiting the scenes of his crimes and undergoing the tortures he once used on others stir empathy in him? Can a man who openly laughs at human rights feel humanity himself?

It's vaguely tempting for us to laugh at the schlocky quality of the improvised movie within the documentary, to see the bad makeup (that's Anwar pictured above, on the right) and costumes and props and acting, and be mildly amused. But it's ultimately too sick to be funny. The men all talk about how their ideas for massacre and torture came from the movies, how they strived to exceed the carnage they watched. The 3 million soldiers currently in the country's paramilitary security force serve in Tony the Tiger orange and under the misguided belief that gangster means "free" or "freedom" in English -- that, in their violence, they're patriots.

The movie, despite its washed-out digital look, works because it appears to have an endgame. The documentary remains an experimental step ahead of their human subjects. Werner Herzog and Errol Morris are executive producers, and the movie they've put their names on is of a piece with their own films' interest in human nature and its moral perversions. Having these killers star in a movie -- part gangster, part western, part fever dream -- that reenacts their killings is pure Herzog. The killers think it's a cinematic glorification when, really, it's an x-ray.

To the Wonder.jpgA lot less loaded is Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder," which had its premiere screenings here in the last couple of days. This is the first time he's ever released movies in consecutive years. The watery, fluttering, rippling style imparts none of the wisdom or sensuality or eternity of "Day of Heaven," "The Thin Red Line" or "The Tree of Life." It is mysterious, though: what, how, why? It's a story of love ended and love begun again -- Ben Affeck and Rachel McAdams; Affleck and Olga Kurylenko -- with a Christian God still minding the spiritual store. Javier Bardem has the thankless task of bodily representing Him; he plays a Spanish priest.

All of Malick's usual ellipses are here. So is the whispered narration. It usually works with him. But here it's very don't-wake-the-baby -- or, I'm afraid to say, the audience. I'm afraid to say this because Terrence Malick is not a filmmaker whose plate you send back to the kitchen. You may never eat again. But the thinness and visual murk of this movie, much of which appears to have been shot digitally, explains why he shouldn't work in a rush or on a budget.

The last place I want to see Malick take his filmmaking is a suburban subdivision in the American Midwest, but there are Affleck and Kurylenko, doing almost nothing but pacing around each other in a big empty property that looks as if the producers found it in a foreclosure sale. And while you're watching Affleck, McAdams, and Kurylenko want each other, you fear that Malick has only a loose understanding of how sexy they are all. Sex is at the heart of this movie. So is sin. But you need to feel the heat of the former to feel the sting of the latter. I didn't feel enough of anything.

Whatever Malick is going through -- more than one colleague here has surmised that he's gone deeper into Christianity -- it's a drain on imagination. You could feel higher powers in "The Tree of Life." It heaved with religiosity. This new movie barely breathes at all. There's no passion or life or air. There's no wonder. It's diet Malick.

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