Fantastic Fest Recap Day 6

(Welcome to The Fantastic Fest Diaries, where we will be chronicling every single movie we see at the United States’ largest genre film festival.)

Welcome to Fantastic Fest, day six. In this diary entry: Nicole Kidman is a desperate cop on the edge, a shift at a gas station goes terribly wrong in more ways than one, demons invade the prairie, and Director Timo Tjahjanto delivers his brazenly insane take on The Evil Dead.

Destroyer is a Familiar Crime Story Told With Stellar Craft

There’s something familiar about Karyn Kusama‘s Destroyer, the sense that this film is unashamed of its genetic connection to classic cops-and-crooks films like Heat and The French Connection. But for every element that feels expected, elements that are baked into the genre and cannot be removed without altering the chemical formula altogether, Kusama injects something new and unexpected and quietly astounding. Yes, Destroyer is another “cop-on-the-edge chases down the bad guy who got away” movie, but let’s not beat around the bush here: it is an outstanding “cop-on-the-edge chases down the bad guy who got away” movie.

At the center of it all is Nicole Kidman as Erin Bell, an LAPD detective seemingly comprised entirely of jangled nerved, vicious glances, and itchy trigger fingers. Much has been made of Kidman’s physical transformation for the role – the hollow eyes, the sunken cheeks, the leathery skin – but this is no cry for Oscar and the layers of make-up don’t feel like a stunt. The physicality matches the intensity of Kidman’s work, a performance that is raw and frightening, broken yet powerful. The transformation becomes another tool in Kidman’s arsenal, not the reason for the performance to exist. Bell is a woman who won’t bend for anything, even as she looks like a stiff breeze will blow her over. In a career filled with memorable and brave performances, this may be the best Kidman has ever been.

Destroyer is straightforward enough until it isn’t, following Bell as she stalks around Los Angeles, taking desperate, violent steps toward a bank robber (Toby Kebbell) who got away years earlier. The present day storyline takes a break every now and then as the past is offered up in bits and pieces: Bell’s undercover operation alongside a fellow cop (Sebastian Stan), her relationship with the crooks to whom she gets a little too close, and the big job where everything went wrong. It’s a structure that reward careful observation as we struggle to understand how the Bell in these flashbacks became the Bell we meet while on the present day warpath. And while this is Kidman’s show, Destroyer lets her grapple with welcome actors like Bradley Whitford, Scoot McNairy, and Tatiana Maslany, each of whom hold their own against Kidman’s monstrous, unforgettable performance.

Three years ago, Kusama emerged from an undeserved stint in “director’s jail” with The Invitation, one of the straight-up best thrillers of the millennium. Destroyer is further evidence that this industry has done her wrong, that she can not just make movies as good as the boys, but she can make them better and fresher and with a nuance and style that is sorely lacking from the testosterone-laden realm of “cop movies.” Destroyer is a terrific potboiler, but Kusama and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi keep a few aces up their sleeve, reveals that slide between the ribs like a knife. When the credits roll, you’ll want to watch Destroyer again, now properly equipped for the journey ahead. I imagine it won’t prove any less devastating.

Open 24 Hours Brings Nothing New to the Table

A young woman with a dark past gets a job at a gas station. Weird things start happening. People start dying. Her first night on the job may be the last. You’ve seen this movie before.

That young woman finds herself questioning her sanity. Is she seeing shadows of her past, vivid hallucinations, or is there an actual threat here? You’ve seen this movie before.

It’s very violent. Bad things happen to good people. Heads are smashed. Throats are cut. There’s a nastiness to it all, an intentional unpleasantness that can’t help but feel tired. You’ve seen this movie before.

It’s too long. The characters make increasingly stupid decisions. The story asks us to leap over gaps in logic and common sense, hoping that the next kill will appease us. You’ve seen this movie before.

Open 24 Hours is nothing new. It’s not funny. It’s not clever. Its violence is gross, but in service of nothing we care about. You’ve seen this movie before. And you’ve seen it better.

The Wind Burns Slow But Brings Plenty of Dread

The Wind belongs very much in a post-The Witch world. The comparisons between the two are many: they’re both slow-burning, intimate horror tales with small casts set in isolated period settings that use supernatural horror to explore the dissolution of social norms. If we’re on the cusp of an entire sub genre of like-minded period horror, we’re in for a treat.

Director Emma Tammi’s solo feature debut is a western about the dangers of not believing women, making it a wholly relevant film for 2018. It is also a western about prairie demons making life a living hell for two settler families, making it a wholly relevant film for just about any year. The former is embodied by the tremendous Caitlin Gerard, playing a lonely wife whose husband won’t even acknowledge the fact that they’ve built their cabin in a place that is just inherently evil. The latter is embodied by a choking sense of dread that pervades the film, leading to scenes of quiet, inexplicable evil and shots that linger in the brain like something out of a bad dream.

The Wind’s pacing proves to be a double-edged blade. The most chilling moments wouldn’t be nearly as effective without that agonizing build-up, but the film never takes advantage of its eventual escalation. It’s a slow movie until the credits roll and Tammi pulls back on the reins when you wish she’d break into a gallop. But the film’s fractured timeline builds a mystery worth getting lost within, and Gerard, anchoring a film that goes for long stretches without spoken dialogue, is a wonderful tour guide through it all (particularly since the rest of the acting can be…iffy). In a year defined by both existential dread and women taking control of their own narratives, this is a horror western that can’t help but feel essential.

May the Devil Take You Runs a Satanic Marathon of Terror

Director Timo Tjahjanto has not been shy about calling May the Devil Take You his take on Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. But while so many filmmakers are simply satisfied to riff on Raimi’s singular blend of sheer terror and broad comedy, Tjahjanto has made the ultimate tribute album by a cover band that doesn’t just remind you of why you fell in love with the original, but delivers a reinterpretation that reignites your affection all over again.

Tjahjanto brings his patented “start at 11 and find ways to go bigger” style to this tale of a man who makes a pact with the devil, and the man’s children who must deal with the consequences when the Big Guy himself comes calling. And of course it’s set in an isolated, dingy house with a terrifying cellar. And of course there is demonic possession, outrageous gore, and Satanic imagery that fluctuates between silly and genuinely upsetting. It’s like the final 15 minutes of The House of the Devil decided to run a marathon.

To call May the Devil Take You totally nuts would be underselling its brazen insanity, but it would also ignore the actual craft on display. Tjahjanto clearly loves his gooey latex face-ripping and he’s not shy about rubbing our noses in all kinds of viscera. However, he knows that variety is the spice of terror. When things get too crazed, he slows down for an extended sequence of suspense and terror. Following an effective jump scare, he’ll lean heavily on mood for a moment before cutting through it all with a silly gore gag. What could have felt like a grab-bag of horror elements actually comes together to form a cohesive whole and it is nothing short of a miracle.

May the Devil Take You is Timo Tjahjanto’s second film at Fantastic Fest this year (double feature it with his action instant-classic The Night Comes For You if you want to break your brain) and all the proof we need that he’s one of the most thrilling genre filmmakers on the planet. After years of promise, he has become fully formed. Watch out, every other nation on Earth. Indonesia is primed to dominate the genre film conversation for the foreseeable future.

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