I turned thirty-five today, which I hesitate to mention here except that it always does fall in the middle of the festival, and I have to wonder if that annual body blow of mortality awareness determined why I liked the one movie I saw today so much and why I couldn’t quite bring myself to actually go to the other one for which I had a ticket. Anyway, it’s certainly not like I had a big blowout—indeed, with a b-day on 9/11, I stopped telling very many people a few years ago for some reason—it was a typical holiday for me: gym, grocery store, poking around on the internet, downtown for a screening of a monster-filled western, treated myself to dinner at Red Lobster. Who says oldsters don’t know how to get down?
Once again, at any rate, the fates work in mysterious ways. The second movie I saw at TIFF this year, It Might Get Loud, was one of my backup picks; I forget what I missed getting to make room for it, but it really doesn’t matter as I had a wild rockin’ time to kick off my first night of screenings. Today was another second choice: for some reason The Dungeon Masters, the doc about role playing gamers, was booked solid early on, so I wound up with a ticket to the Midnight Madness presentation The Burrowers, which I may have wound up trying to wedge in anyway, what with my elevated MM immersion program this year. I’d been wary of the movie for reasons I’ll get to, but when I bumped into Colin Geddes manning the MM booth at FanExpo, he gave me the hard sell on it and, yes, I’m learning to trust his judgment (see: Not Quite Hollywood. No, literally, see it. It’s playing again tomorrow evening. End plug.)
What did I know going in? Just the pitch of “it’s like The Searchers, but with monsters,” which tickled that part of my brain that celebrates the wacky genre mashup. So I kicked back in the Scotia 4, engaged in the most spirited “what have you seen?” conversation with my seatmates that I’ve had yet (any TIFF regular knows that such exchanges can be almost as entertaining as the movies themselves and can result in anything from desperate searches for 2nd showing tickets to love affairs to fistfights) and as the movie unspooled, was utterly transported. Yes, The Searchers with monsters. But also a genuinely expertly-made western, a solid suspense flick and an actors’ showcase. How great is it to see Clancy Brown onscreen again? Though he’ll always be the Kurgan to me, in The Burrowers he’s a wonder: buried under a grey beard and a tattered cowboy hat, he disappears into the role of a Dakota lawman, and establishes himself as a western actor in the tradition of Ben Johnson or Warren Oates. William Mapother is also a shock. Tom Crooze’s cousin scuffs down enough to be another credible oater star. If the western ever actually makes another comeback, these guys should be regular players.
And as for the monsters? Well, not to give too much away, they freakin’ rock. Director JT Petty keeps them offscreen or fleetingly-glimpsed for the first hour or so, and when they’re revealed as being…well, I won’t spoil that.
Here’s the thing that baffles me about The Burrowers: I saw Petty’s last movie S&MAN at TIFF two years ago and really disliked it. S&MAN was purportedly a documentary about the ultra low-budget, made in someone’s backyard horror movie scene, the kind of filmmaking that makes the dudes from American Movie seem like Corman-esque entrepreneurs—I say “purportedly” because it is that but is also something else, I won’t spoil that either, but I left the theatre feeling pranked, and not in a pleasurable way. Beyond the manipulative rug-pulling that pissed me off, the movie’s focus was on a group of people that I would have gladly crossed the street to avoid, a certain metalhead white trash alcoholic substrata of trailer park culture, and Petty’s documentary aesthetic seemed to stoop to that level. His film, despite the switcheroo, barely seemed a notch above the homemade exercises in masturbatory violence his subjects trafficked in. I felt dirty watching it.
So two years later, here’s Petty again with one of a) the best films of the festival, b) the best horror movies I’ve seen in ages and c) the most gorgeously-shot and brilliantly-acted westerns to come down the pike since Unforgiven. Was this talent coiled inside him as he hung around biker bars with a digicam shooting losers pretending to knife strippers laid out in wax pentagrams? This is a monumental leap forward, and I’m all of a sudden a huge fan, I can’t wait to see what he does next and my head hurts from switching gears that fast. The Burrowers is Petty’s fourth feature film. I’ve seen films that were the director’s tenth that weren’t as assured or well-mounted. And oh yeah, he wrote it, too, this terrific script that not only fuses genres so smoothly it’s like they were thrown together unexpectedly in a telepod, he also manages to comment on extraordinary rendition and class warfare without the slightest hint of beating the audience over the head with metaphor. I could rave for a few more paragraphs, but I expect I’ve overstayed my welcome here already. Great goddamn movie. (****)
I had a ticket to Firaaq this evening, but I wound up pawning it in the rush line. I know I really wanted to see something from India this year, but a week of disc-punishing lines, food court dinners and insomnia finally caught up with me, and I also realized I just wasn’t in any mood to see what was bound to be a really intense drama about south Asian religious strife (on this day of all days). So I retreated back to the east end, and I swear I’ll check out Firaaq if it plays the Varsity this fall.