When Marshall McLuhan came up with his famous Understanding Media theory that film is a “hot” medium, he was not actually talking about the sticky, sweaty experience of watching films at the Toronto International Film Festival at the beginning of September every year. He was laying out an argument that film doesn’t demand as much active engagement as some other art forms. Supposedly, audiences passively lie back and let cinematic stories wash over them, without mentally working to meet the creators halfway. But that theory doesn’t take into account the way we all filter movies though our own experiences, and our immediate states of mind when we’re watching. Films where a character dies after a long battle with cancer feel more keenly painful to viewers who’ve just lost a family member to the disease. Films about young people falling in love feel more inclusive and uplifting to people in the early stages of their own relationships. And to TIFF viewers, sweating their butts off in million-percent humidity as they trudge from packed theater to packed theater, films about parched, sun-baked characters panting through hostile environments may seem a lot more emotionally resonant. Surely it's okay if we’re uncomfortable, as long as the people onscreen are uncomfortable, too.
So it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the three films I saw on my first day of my first TIFF all felt extra sweaty, as if the close-up cameras were all magnifying glasses, focusing the sun into pinpoint heat on the ants below. The lineup of overheated films felt prescient, even sympathetic. Granted, the on-screen suffering and threat level in all these films was a lot keener than anything TIFF’s temporary community of critics, filmmakers, and industry folks were experiencing. We were just dealing with broken escalators and a long, steep hike to the theaters in TIFF’s main megaplex, with high humidity and air conditioners operating well below capacity in theaters that were nearly at capacity. Meanwhile, the equally overheated people on-screen were losing their lives, their limbs, and their loves.
For me, the day kicked off with Loving, the low-key true-life story of Virginia residents Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple whose landmark Supreme Court case struck down miscegenation laws in 1958. I wrote about that film separately; here, it's just worth noting that the latest mysteries-of-the-human-heart drama from Mud, Take Shelter, and Midnight Special writer-director Jeff Nichols takes place in Virginia and Washington, DC, but the setting feels much more like the poorest areas of the Deep South. There's a brutal relentlessness to the sun in Loving, and the rest of the world feels just as inhospitable. The run-down, boxy homes don't have many comforts, let alone luxuries. The clothes are simple, the haircuts are severe, and the attitudes are harsh and judgmental. And the heat is palpable through most of the film. (Except in a few snowy winter scenes where everyone seems shriveled by cold instead.) Loving is a subdued movie that doesn't make a garish, visible show of the Lovings' relationship. Nichols communicates their love mostly through little gestures — an arm draped over a shoulder, a shared look of agreement, a mutual laugh over The Andy Griffith Show — that stand in sharp contrast to the severity of the world around them. In a world with so few creature comforts, and so little softness, their affection feels remarkable, which makes it even more of a grating injustice when their government tries to ban it.
American Honey, the latest from Fish Tank and Red Road writer-director Andrea Arnold, is set in a similarly harsh world, where poverty whittles the available joys down to a small menu. First-time film star Sasha Lane plays the protagonist, Star, a teenage Texan saddled with taking care of her sleazy stepfather and his young siblings after her mom dies. Then she runs into a band of young nomads who travel around the country in a van, selling magazine subscriptions. She makes an instant lust connection with their chief seller, Jake (Shia LaBeouf) in a grocery store, to the tune of Rihanna's on-the-nose hit "We Found Love," and when they invite her to join them, she hops on board. The film is 158 minutes of loose incident on the road after that, as Star observes the group and doesn't entirely assimilate into it, and as she and Jake circle each other, trying to take possession of each other without giving away too much in return. Star isn't a particularly sympathetic heroine: she's petty, possessive, and painfully naïve. But she's also honest in a way that doesn't fit well with the anything-for-a-sale crowd, and she's unpredictable in a way that pays instant and considerable dividends in drama.
The backstory behind American Honey is astonishing: Arnold is a British director who prepped for her first American-shot film by road-tripping around the country herself, auditioning young people she found at beach parties and in parking lots. She assembled her chosen cast into a loose crew, then shot them interacting on the road over 10,000 hours of travel and filming. She worked from a script, but without rehearsals or storyboarding. And the film's looseness and immediacy fits that process. It's an immersive, seductive experience that matches method to message. A more tightly scripted and edited version of the story wouldn't be able to capture the feeling of disassociation from time: These young people have no particular aims in life past the next sale, the next high, or the next party, and the film drifts along on their time scale, watching them hustle for sales and grab-ass around. They define themselves with alcohol, pot, and loud music — especially hip-hop songs about sex, freedom, partying, and making money. (One terrific scene is just a freestyled sing-along to E-40's "Choices (Yup).") And Arnold observes them without judging them too harshly, but also without tacit approval, and without glamorizing their rootlessness and poverty.
The heat hangs heavy over American Honey, but the road-trippers handle it with the same reckless, crazy energy they bring to everything else. Mostly, they shed clothing: there's a lot of naked skin on display, in sexual and non-sexual situations, and there's a coltish casualness about bodies that's almost exclusively the province of the young. American Honey is a raw, undisciplined film, but it's also a wild one, and it has the compulsion that comes with conviction, when a filmmaker is entirely dedicated to her premise and her working methods.
It's hard to say the same of The Bad Batch, Ana Lily Amirpour's unfortunate follow-up to her stunningly stylish 2014 debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. With Bad Batch, Amirpour brings back a few of her first film's most striking elements: an angry heroine with power and a vendetta, and an aimless world full of competing predators. But she strips away the arch sense of period and place, the striking black-and-white cinematography, and the feeling of narrative control. Bad Batch takes place in an unspecified future, where criminals are ejected into the arid badlands outside of Texas' borders. Shortly after Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is sent into the wilderness, she's captured and mutilated by a cannibal community called The Bridge. But she manages to survive long enough to get help from a mute scavenger (Jim Carrey, whose blessed silence makes him charming and wryly funny instead of hammy). She winds up in a camp called Comfort, run by a beatific cult leader (Keanu Reeves). Eventually, she attempts to avenge herself on The Bridge, which pushes her into a complicated compromise with an artist-cannibal (Game Of Thrones' Jason Momoa).
While Bad Batch looks nothing like Girl visually, it's noticeably the work of the same writer-director. Amirpour is still dealing in long, pregnant pauses, and in the struggle between attraction and repulsion, inertia and action. Her films deal in the perils of indecision. And while she denied any particular feminist bent to Girl — a story about a female vampire explicitly preying on predatory men — she still seems to be circling around the idea of a betrayed woman seizing the power to avenge herself, and other people in the process. The Bad Batch particularly feels like a rape-revenge movie where the character's bodily autonomy was violated in a way that's less sexual, more externally visible, and just as personal. But here, the themes seem slack and unfocused. Arlen only has a personality when she's actively fighting for survival. Captured by the cannibals, she becomes Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 10 Cloverfield Lane, creatively drawing on every available resource to fight and escape. But when there isn't an immediate threat, she's Kristen Stewart in Twilight, gaping blankly at the world around her and wondering why it doesn't change.
Bad Batch never gives her consistent goals, or even particularly lucid ones. Her mission of vengeance peters out early, and then she just wanders erratically through a story that barely needs her. There's a touch of Jim Jarmusch's Western fantasy Dead Man in the dreamy, languorous wandering here, and a little of Robert Rodriguez's gleefully trashy Planet Terror in Arlen's mutilation and how it changes her. But both of those films had end goals, and this one has none. The bizarre fortune-cookie philosophy of its coda just emphasizes how impoverished this film feels when it comes to unifying themes, or a big picture that would find meaning in all the little incidents.
At least Bad Batch is visually intense, shot in intimate close-ups that, like American Honey, put the focus sharply on bare skin and the way people sin both with it and against it. The way cinematographer Lyle Vincent (who also shot Girl) captures the warm glow of healthy human bodies makes it all the more shocking when those bodies are physically violated. And Amirpour capably brings home the poverty and privation of desperate scavengers; cannibalism in this environment actually seems sensible, given the limited alternatives and the demanding conditions. Again, the desert heat feels like a malevolent character. Unfortunately, it's a much more consistent and threatening one than Momoa or Reeves. The latter has done interesting work as a villain, in The Gift and recently in Neon Demon. But in Bad Batch, his big villain speech amounts to sleepily delivered, circular, self-serving horseshit, and his "everyone who lives in my town must do LSD together" ethos is an intriguing loose thread that never fully integrates. Bad Batch takes place in a desert environment where sweltering heat has baked the ground into a maze of cracks and faults. But the film itself feels half-baked. Its ideas, such as they area, needed a little more time in the sun. Meanwhile, the Verge staff at TIFF is actively avoiding that sun as much as we can — and with as many as 19 festival films screening simultaneously, that shouldn't be hard. Now if they'd just fix that damn escalator and those air conditioners.
On the next TIFF report: Bryan Bishop tackles Arrival, the Birth of a Nation premiere, and more.