2021 Toronto Int. Film Fest Diary: Entry 2 - Hybrid Blues & Awards Fare

by C.J. Prince

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday September 13, 2021

Benedict Cumberbatch and Kodi Smit-McPhee in "The Power of the Dog"
Benedict Cumberbatch and Kodi Smit-McPhee in "The Power of the Dog"  (Source:Netflix)

TIFF's decision to stick to a hybrid format this year makes it an outlier among other major film festivals this season. Cannes, Venice, and Telluride all opted for in-person events only, albeit with health protocols in place to prevent the spread of COVID; New York committed to a hybrid format, then ditched the plan after citing demands from distributors and rights holders who refused to go virtual. Toronto hasn't wavered from its offering of physical and online screenings, and for acknowledging we're still in the middle of a deadly pandemic they deserve some credit.

But TIFF still has to compromise in some areas, much to the disdain of people attending virtually. The press and industry element of the festival, primarily taking place online but with in-person screenings offered as well, doesn't provide online options for more high profile films or restricts viewership to only a few countries. And on the public side, the festival offered "Special Events" this year for titles that would only do physical screenings, like Denis Villeneuve's "Dune" and the much-anticipated "Spencer," where Kristen Stewart plays Princess Diana in the hopes of winning an Oscar.

One of these Special Events is "A Hero," the new film by Iranain filmmaker Asghar Farhadi. The film won the Grand Prix at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and with Amazon behind it an awards campaign is all but certain (Farhadi previously won the Oscar for Best International Film with "The Salesman" and he's poised to get nominated again). Farhadi specializes in morality tales, usually spiraling outward from an incident to show how the fallibility of people can lead to unintended, devastating consequences. This time, he tells the story of Rahim (Amir Jadidi), who's on a short leave while serving a prison sentence over an unpaid debt. Rahim's girlfriend coincidentally finds a purse full of gold coins left at a bus station, and tells him they can cash them in to pay his creditor. Rahim refuses and chooses to find the purse's owner instead, a good deed that makes him a local celebrity for his selflessness.


All seems well until his creditor finds out and loses it, furious that the man who still hasn't paid him back gets treated like a saint. After rumors of the whole event being orchestrated start to spread online, the tides turn against Rahim, and that's when "A Hero" reveals itself to be little more than a dick-measuring contest of morality. Farhadi has shown his skills as a dramatist over the years with films like "A Separation" and "Fireworks Wednesday," but "A Hero" is a series of contrivances that get on the nerves as the deck stacks higher and higher against its protagonist. Eventually, the film reveals its main target to be mob mentality and social media, although Farhadi's orchestration of a scenario where a kind, simple man gets his life undone by online commentators exposes the director as an old, out of touch man ranting against cancel culture.

My next (and last) in-person screening was for "Titane," which made history this year after it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and made director Julia Ducournau the second woman ever to get the prize. There's no doubt that "Titane" is one of the wildest films to ever take home the Palme, and given how much its story relies on unpredictability it's best to not reveal much. The basic setup is that Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is a serial killer in the south of France who finds herself attracted to cars. After her love of vehicles takes on a very literal form, she crosses paths with a firefighter (Vincent Lindon) and the two form a strange bond.


Ducournau made a splash with her debut feature "Raw" back in 2016, which took a wild premise (girl develops a taste for human flesh in her first year of college) and brought it to squeamish extremes. With "Titane," she creates a story that's even more ludicrous, keeps the body horror, and does it with far more confidence. But aside from shocking viewers into submission, Ducournau doesn't seem to have much else going on. "Titane" has been described as a queer film, which makes sense but only on the surface; ideas involving identity, transgressiveness, body dysmorphia, and chosen families are in the mix but amount to window dressing among the bizarre and gross out moments. It's also a weird film structurally, taking two separate stories and running them as parallel lines until they get awkwardly mashed together. That may be by design after all, given the whole twisted metal aesthetic, but by the end of "Titane" the charms of its assured weirdness had worn off.

Taking a turn back to something more conventional, my first proper film of the fall festival season was Jane Campion's "The Power of the Dog," which just took home the Silver Lion for Best Director at Venice. Campion's first film since "Bright Star" in 2009 takes place in 1920s Montana, where brothers George (Jesse Plemons) and Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) work as ranchers. George falls in love with the widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and marries her, and the disruption of Rose's presence along with her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) makes Phil lash out in cruel and horrific ways.


For a while, things look like a standard slow boil thriller where it's a matter of time before tensions between Phil and Rose explode, but Campion takes things in a different direction. Phil takes more of a focus in the film's back half, revealing layers beneath his toxic masculinity that bring in queer undertones as he bonds with Peter, whose frail, sensitive nature represents everything Phil forced himself to avoid showing. There may be some appeal to the low-key power struggles in "The Power of the Dog," although Campion takes far too long setting things up to make the psychological elements really pay off in a substantial way. Her handling of queer material feels about as dated as her source material as well (the story comes from Thomas Savage's 1967 novel of the same name), honing in on Peter's weirdness in tacky ways or giving Phil little depth aside outside of being an overcompensating closet case. Faulty story aside, "The Power of the Dog" offers some gorgeous visuals from the director of photography Ari Wegner, along with good performances from Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee (unfortunately Dunst is wasted here, her character reduced to a hysterical drunk by the final act). But even when trying to be subversive, the film is too busy milling about its ideas to ever really come into focus.

Finally, there's always one film at the festival that ends up being a major letdown, where all its promise turns into wasted time. The festival isn't over yet so I can't say for certain which film takes that distinction, although for now it's Michael Pearce's "Encounter," an Amazon original starring Oscar nominee Riz Ahmed and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer. Ahmed plays Malik, a marine who believes an alien parasite has gotten into insects that are now infecting people with a mind controlling virus. Malik sneaks into his (now infected) ex-wife's house one night to take his two sons with him on a road trip to a safe place in Nevada, all while trying to avoid the infected.


It would be impossible to explain why "Encounter" is such a failure without revealing its purpose, so those who wish to remain in the dark can stop reading now and wait for its release in December. By the hour mark, Pearce brings in Spencer, who plays Malik's parole officer and reveals the big twist: Malik has mental health issues, a background in jail for assault, and the alien invasion is all in his head. It's an idiotic bait-and-switch that transforms the film from a sci-fi thriller to a sensitive issues drama over mental illness, although it's tough to say how sensitive it can be when it relies on the trope of schizophrenia as plot device. Ahmed and Spencer do their best with a wretched script, which runs out of gas so quickly after revealing its hand it has to engineer a subplot with anti-government gun nuts going after Malik to re-raise the stakes. This is pure hackery elevated by its high-profile stars who deserve better, although the Amazon release means "Encounter" should find a place in the streaming graveyard. It would be best to let it be a waste of server space than a waste of your time.