Austin Film Festival 2019: (Trans)national Justice​

New films by Terrence Malick, Miranda Nation, and Trey Edward Shults stand out amongst a diverse crop of films at Austin's annual "screenwriter's festival".


little blue robot by vinsky2002 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

As cold weather (or, well, cold-ish weather) finally arrived in Austin following seven months of perma-summer, the Austin Film Festival commenced its 26th iteration. Known widely as the “Writer’s Festival” for its special focus on screenwriting, Austin Film Festival presented a wide variety of films this year, with soon-to-be Oscar contenders (e.g., Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn and Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy) being screened alongside short films from upstart filmmakers. The festival also screened premieres of American flicks which have already made some of the rounds at the major global film festivals, like the recent Toronto International Film Festival.

There were more offerings than I could possibly view over the course of a single week, but I was fortunate to catch the seven films below, which span from the smallest indie productions to movies that will soon be in theaters across the United States. If there’s one unifying thread through these very different films, it’s the concerns of justice, which in a time of global upheaval feels like the right response on the part of the filmmakers.

The Witness (I Witness), Dir. Mitko Panov (Republic of Macedonia, Ireland, and Switzerland) (2018 )

Before one sees a single shot of The Witness (I Witness), title cards announce that Mitko Panov’s film received funding from – if my memory is correct – over five governmental agencies spread across Europe. Ireland, Switzerland, and the Republic of Macedonia all chipped in. It is fitting, then, that narratively The Witness feels cobbled together.

Panov can’t quite decide if he’s making a thriller, a legal drama, or an action-comedy. Rather than weaving these genres into each other, he and co-writers Wladyslaw Pasikowski and David Riker jump awkwardly between them. By the time The Witness concludes with a sentimental speech about the trials of the heart, it seems to have exhausted nearly every storytelling approach to its plot.

To be fair, the attempt to prosecute war criminals and those who perpetrate crimes against humanity in international courts has become something of a generic mess itself. The International Criminal Court – veiled in Panov’s film as the International War Crimes Tribunal – emerged with promise in the late 1990s. Global governments recognized that war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other mass atrocities transcend borders, and no single national sovereignty could hope to bring such criminals to justice. Since then, with only a few major prosecutions to its name, the ICC’s existence has been something close to tragicomic.

Vince Harrington (Pádraic Delaney), after slogging through a five-year trial at the Hague, which seems to be failing in its goal to bring a war criminal (Refet Abazi) to justice, goes to the criminal’s home country of Macedonia to bring in a key witness to help close the case. Bruno Ganz plays the titular witness, Nikola Radin, with grace and skill that far exceeds his colleagues.

Harrington finds the former Yugoslavia region in which Radin has self-exiled to be a den of corruption, and subsequently ends up on a wild goose chase that takes him all the way to the rocky slopes of the Baltic mountains. Harrington’s is a long, winding, and Sisyphean journey. This is perhaps a commentary on the paths international law must take to achieve justice, but the nuances of transnational justice don’t explain the directions taken by the messy Witness.

Even when the extended chase sequences in The Witness prove improbable, Panov grounds the action in some realism. The stock characters that Harrington must work against may look like Eastern European stereotypes, but in their refusal to cooperate with the international tribunal, they behave no differently than the majority of world governments housing accused war criminals.

Similarly, the erratic language choices throughout the movie – for instance, characters who live in the Balkan regions speak English to each other, even when other English speakers are not around – must be what it’s like to roam the halls of the ICC, one of the most polylingual institutions in the world.

Early in The Witness, we see Harrington being guided into a dark maze of filing cabinets and shelves holding documents of boxes. With only a weak light to illuminate the reams of bureaucracy which line the shelves of the room, the shot comes closest to capturing what the pursuit of international justice actually looks like.

Undertow, Dir. Miranda Nation (Australia) (2018)

An early highlight of the festival, Undertow seems to be a cinematic exploration of female obsession, but it ends up being a harrowing depiction of grief’s capacity to totally untether a person from the world around them. Claire (Laura Gordon) loses her baby in a stillbirth at the beginning of the film, and just as she’s beginning to take steps to move past her loss, she spots her husband Dan (Rob Collins, a hunkier Trevor Noah) at a motel with a beautiful young woman, Angie (Olivia DeJonge).

As it turns out, things aren’t what they seem: Angie is actually the girlfriend of Dan’s close friend Brett (Josh Helman), a professional soccer player, and Dan is serving as an intermediary for a spat between the couple. Claire begins to stalk Angie, and after discovering that the 19-year-old is pregnant, her obsession intensifies.

As Claire, Gordon has to do what Ryan Gosling did for the stretch of his career which includes Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) and Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines (2013): communicate a whole emotional tapestry with a still face. Gordon proves more than up to the task; without her, this film would sink under the weight of the melodramatic coincidences it indulges. When Gordon’s stony expression breaks, as it does in a powerful scene where she watches a succession of couples in a support group bid farewell to their deceased children, you feel the weight of all the emotions she suppresses beneath her stoicism.

Miranda Nation’s direction emphasizes how alone Claire feels in her grief, even amongst her husband and closest friends. In an early scene where Claire talks with a doctor during a vaginal examination, the doctor asks questions from out of the frame, with Claire occupying the center. When the doctor moves over to a desk, we see her only in a mirror, slightly out of focus. Claire, throughout, holds our attention.

At a support group meeting, Dan and Claire occupy a two-shot as Dan talks about his struggles after the loss of their child. As Dan speaks he’s in the corner of the frame, the focus blurring his openness and guiding our eyes to Claire on his right. She clearly but silently feels his lamentations about not being able to match up to the “spreadsheet plan” he had for being a dad to be trifling in comparison to her suffering. Even in scenes where multiple characters are present, Nation uses the camera not only to emphasize the need to focus on Claire, but also to show the isolating power of grief.

This formal skill is Undertow‘s saving grace. This could easily have been a boilerplate thriller about one woman’s obsession, but with Nation’s camerawork Undertow takes on a different life, a story of a woman who, above all else, wants a real connection in the face of a loss which severed off the ties to the world she once knew.

D.C. Noir, Dirs. George Pelecanos, Nick Pelecanos, Gbenga Akinnagbe and Stephen Kinigopoulos (USA) (2019;)

In 2006 Akashic Books published DC Noir, one of the many entrants in its city noir short story anthologies, edited by the crime writer George Pelecanos. The story which opens that collection, Pelecanos’ “The Confidential Informant”, is one of the four short narratives collected in his mini-anthology film, which includes three new short story treatments by Pelecanos: “The Lovers” (which he directs), “String Music” (directed by Gbenga Akinnagbe), and “Miss Mary’s Room” (directed by Nick Pelecanos). Stephen Kinigopoulous directs “The Confidential Informant”, which closes out the film.

Pelecanos knows all the noir touchstones, and uses them throughout each of the four short films to provide continuity. Gruff voiceovers, chiaroscuro, and hard-boiled quips are the storytelling tools of Pelecanos’ trade. Like the Akashic city noir anthologies, however, DC Noir is a mixed bag.

“The Lovers” has an interesting premise: a hitman, who is also in league with the police, falls in love with his intended target, only for her to abandon him after he takes a great risk for her. Pelecanos lays out an intricate puzzle of character relationships, but the pieces never come together, resulting in what feels more like a sketch than a story. “The Confidential Informant” feels similarly thin, although it concludes with a great iteration of that classic crime film shot, that of a killer standing over his target.

Light proves to be the true star of Pelecanos’ four stories, particularly in the two strongest parts of the collection, “String Music” and “Miss Mary’s Room”. (Jim Thompson would have smiled at a title like the latter.) “String Music” is the standout of DC Noir, a haunting reflection on the gap between the perception police officers have of themselves and their actual role in the communities which they serve. Jay O. Sanders depicts a self-fashioned “friendly” cop, Sgt. Peters, known as “Sgt. Dad” by his junior officers. He takes that folksy image and attempts to use it to ingratiate himself to the precinct he patrols, though it’s easy to tell that the primarily black residents of the neighborhood view him, a white policeman, quite differently.

Akinnagbe takes advantage of the almost fiery amber of the sodium-vapor streetlamp bulbs, which serve as Sgt. Peters’ primary source of light. As he weaves through the streets on patrol, sporting a forced grin as he tries to engage passersby, the streetlamps mold his head into a menacing, almost statuesque visage. He does manage to prevent a near-shooting, but we last see him back in his car, his face alit by red-orange light. He fancies himself a Mayberry-esque neighborhood watchman, but the cinemaphotography clues us in to the threat that underlies his aw-shucks demeanor.

The color red serves a similar narrative value in “Miss Mary’s Room”, a story of a mother who watches her son end up on the wrong end of a drug deal gone bad. It is particularly in this story, however, that a problem which I call “prestige TV lighting” becomes an issue. Noir embraces shadows and darkness, but in several places throughout the film as a whole, dim lighting becomes so extreme as to be implausible. A conversation between a mother and her son in “String Music” would in real life had begun with the mother asking her son why he was just sitting in the dark.

A Hidden Life, Dir. Terrence Malick (Germany and USA) (2019)

Coming off the heels of three abstract and essentially scriptless projects (To the Wonder, 2012, Knight of Cups, 2015, and Song to Song, 2017), Terrence Malick announced that his next project, initially titled Radegund, would be a return to narratively oriented filmmaking. This film, now called A Hidden Life, was made, according to Malick, with “a script that was very well ordered.”

What Malick ended up with, however, doesn’t feel narrative, certainly not in the style of his early pictures, 1973’s Badlands and 1978’s Days of Heaven. The free-floating camerawork of his recent triptych remains, as does the propensity for the characters to wander around in their scenes, seemingly devoid of marks to hit.

Where A Hidden Life does diverge from Malick’s post-Tree of Life work is in its relatively linear structure. The plot, inspired by a true story, is basic enough. An Austrian farmer named Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) refuses to pledge loyalty to Hitler after the Fuhrer takes over his country. After suffering condemnation from his local townsfolk and then the German soldiers who pass through his village of St. Radegund, Franz is taken prisoner by the Germans, who attempt to bring him out of his conscientious objection in service of the growing Nazi empire. A Hidden Life begins with Franz’s quiet existence in the picturesque Austrian mountains, and follows a straight path through his resistance, imprisonment, and ultimately death.

If the overall arc of the story is easy to follow, individual scenes could still flummox those who don’t share Malick’s logic for jump-cuts. Conversations Franz and his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) have with their neighbors are edited much in the way of To the Wonder and its ilk, with interlocutors coming in and out of frame somewhat whimsically. Characters will be talking to each other, and then the camera will jump-cut to the same people talking, but across the distance of a whole room.

It’s become a cliché to say that Malick’s latest films “won’t win over any converts, but they will delight his devotees.” The same holds largely true for A Hidden Life, which at just shy of three hours is a long trek for those who haven’t yet warmed up to Malick’s style. But Malick, to his credit, does order the ethereal shots together in a much more linear fashion than we’ve seen from him recently, and it makes a significant difference.

The story of Franz, a Catholic, could all too easily devolve into proselytization or mawkishness. The swelling orchestral strings and choral vocals which define A Hidden Life‘s soundtrack tip Malick’s hand when it comes to spirituality, but the movie lingers the most on scenes that challenge the value of Franz’s protest. The lawyers and German military officials who interview him express befuddlement at his refusal to participate with the Nazis. They tell him that his protest will do nothing to stop the Nazi machine, nor will it likely change hearts and minds given Franz’s pastoral background – no one will ever see his example to follow it.

Franz lacks the glamor of the kind of martyrs we’re used to seeing represented in art, and Malick knows this. He may not be a traditionally understood filmmaker, but here he puts the audience on the hot seat. We know about the extent of Hitler’s evils now, but, Malick asks, what would we do in a time of rising fascism? What if we could avoid death and the destruction of our families by falsely giving a loyalty oath just to placate the authorities?

A Hidden Life would make for an arduous but gorgeous double-bill with Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film, Silence, a similarly weighty epic about religious suffering. Malick and Scorsese explore the wide reach of a single decision – renouncing one’s own religious obligations – from the effects on one’s own family and friends to the grass on which they walk every day. Both films are also late masterpieces by directors who, having already proven their chops over the past 40 years, continue to amaze.

Red Rover, Dir. Shane Belcourt (Canada) (2018)

Red Rover starts and ends with nature montages that could easily have been B-roll from Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Between those two sequences lies a rather ordinary rom-com. Shane Belcourt jams just about every rom-com trope you can think of into this breezy 95-minute picture: sad-sack guy gets left by his wife for a dumb hunk, guy meets a woman who turns his life around, guy tries to better himself through a workout montage punctuated by gulping sickly-looking green drinks… I could go on. When at the end of the movie the sad-sack, Damon (Kristian Bruun), appears to be moving on in his life yet also thinks that he should go back and get the girl who turned things around for him, you know what he’s going to do.

Damon works as a geologist in a nondescript office and lives in the basement of the house he once shared with his girlfriend Beatrice (Meghan Heffern). She now lives in the main part of the house with the aforementioned hunk. The reasons Beatrice provides for leaving Damon are comically thin, some half-delivered bromides about “wanting something different.” That thought does, however, set Damon up nicely for Phoebe (Cara Gee), a character that could only be described as a manic astronaut dream girl.

While scanning a beach with a metal detector one day, Damon is surprised by Phoebe, who sports a body-hugging spacesuit – helmet and all – to promote a one-way manned expedition to Mars, for which a company called Red Rover seeks applicants. Phoebe charms Damon, and the possibility of a Mars expedition proves tantalizing for him. If it’s not something new, in its doomed isolation it’s at worst redundant. The scenes between Damon and Phoebe are Red Rover‘s strongest, particularly a compellingly shot date they have at a carnival, where a montage of their whole evening serves as background to a conversation where they open up to each other.

Late in the film, Damon’s sleazy former boss Brad (Joshua Peace, playing a kind of Bill Burr character) delivers a monologue about humanity’s infinitesimal place in the universe, and why hedonism, although short-sighted to some, is a reasonable worldview that compensates for how little we matter in the end. It’s a surprising and interesting moment, but the ideas Brad expresses would have better served the film had they been woven throughout, rather than plopped in unceremoniously as the story nears its end.

Such is the case for much of Red Rover: both the camerawork and the writing have glimpses of something better than the rom-com formula, but in the end the tropes win out.

Waves, Dir. Trey Edward Shults (USA) (2019)

Trey Edward Shults would make an amazing music video director. I say this because as visually impressive as Waves is, its soundtrack and sound editing frequently overtake the images. The soundtrack is a tour of hip music from this decade, including Kendrick Lamar and Radiohead. The film arguably becomes something like a visual mixtape; I can’t decide if this happens when Emily (Taylor Russell) name-checks Animal Collective, or when the camera cuts to a phone, set in a cup, playing music (an A+ makeshift speaker, in my experience), and we see the album art of Frank Ocean’s Blonde. There’s also a Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score, though the popular tunes serve the largest role.

Waves insists on the cinema as its vehicle for storytelling, even as it repeatedly lets the audience know that all those involved in its production read Pitchfork dutifully. The overwhelming quality of the music in the film does work the way that Shults intended, however. A pulse-pounding extended sequence centered on Emily’s older brother Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the subject of Waves‘ first half, employs Kanye West’s dissonant and chaotic “I Am a God” to memorable effect. At the end of that scene I thought I might be having a cardiac incident.

But the music too often over-literalizes what’s happening on screen. “Backseat Freestyle” is a jam, maybe Kendrick’s best tune, but the audience doesn’t need to hear it at the top of the mix as Tyler shouts along with it at a beach bonfire. Clearly, he’s overplaying his masculinity to compensate for his hurt following a bad breakup.

Shults’ decision to leave the volume at 11, however, doesn’t totally detract from the gorgeous camerawork he and cinemaphotographer Drew Daniels achieve. Several camera movements and cinemaphotographic tricks become signature visual expressions of Waves. Shults loves to spin the camera around a whole 360, particularly for a series of shots inside cars. Emotional collapse is communicated through blurred, hazy lights; the blues and reds of police sirens wash over some characters until they take over the whole frame.

The domestic drama of Waves isn’t groundbreaking, but it doesn’t need to be. Shults, who cut his teeth working on the post-production of several recent Malick movies, knows how to string stunning images together, and he develops a compelling vernacular for Waves. It helps that his cast is uniformly excellent, especially Russell and Sterling K. Brown, who plays Emily’s strong-willed father, Ronald. Waves is a promising indicator of Shults’ directorial eye. He just needs to keep away from Spotify during post-production.

Just Mercy, Dir. Destin Daniel Cretton (USA) (2019)

There’s not much to Just Mercy, except for the truth. Here Destin Daniel Cretton and co-screenwriter Andrew Lanham adapt Bryan Stevenson’s book of the same name, in which Stevenson, a Harvard-educated lawyer played by Michael B. Jordan in Cretton’s film, recounts the beginning of his career fighting for the rights of convicted felons on death row. One of his first clients, Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx), sits awaiting the electric chair in rural Alabama for killing a young white woman.

But McMillan was nowhere near the murder when it occurred, and his presence on death row owes itself to nothing more than the coerced testimony of a state’s witness, who also was not at the scene of the murder when it was committed. With the help of some federal funding and a native Alabamian named Eva Ansley (Brie Larson, at this point Cretton’s go-to actor), Stevenson takes on racist cops, racist judges (who put McMillan on death row a year before his trial), and a town willing to pin blame on a black man so long as it meant feeling like it had achieved justice.

Stevenson’s story is gripping, and it’s dramatized by a capable director and a superb cast of actors. Foxx stands out amongst the top-billed cast. Jordan, while fine for the role, unfortunately gets dealt a one-dimensional character defined only by his goal to right the wrongs visited upon the Alabama death row inmates he meets. Tim Blake Nelson, as the felon whose testimony sets McMillan up for the electric chair, steals every scene he’s in.

The direction and the screenplay as a whole hit the beats that you’d expect them to in a historical picture like this. Just Mercy plays to many of the tropes co-opted by white savior films (including a cop whom we see slowly realize the err of his ways), although it has the advantage of not having (or needing) a white savior.

Cretton, who directed the 2013 indie gem Short Term 12, has evolved into someone who has clearly learned the major studio playbook, as he’s delivered a film that feels tailored to as wide an audience as possible. The Austin Film Festival concluded with this most crowd-pleasing flick of its marquee screenings.

The storytelling is undeniably effective; I boiled with rage every time a racist cop got away with intimidation and extortion onscreen. But when it comes to filmmaking, Just Mercy lets Stevenson’s book do the heavy lifting, with the camera doing the basic kind of establishing work to relate the narrative, and nothing more.

Yet there is a value to a simple story told well, especially in the “post-truth” era. Late in the film, Stevenson and Ansley sit on a bench in front of a river. Stevenson tells his colleague and friend that “no one talks about” the fact that the river they’re looking at was a key pathway for the slave trade.

The spartan poster for Just Mercy features the tagline, “This is about all of us.” In a time when those in power seem able to get away with just about anything, a true story like this one feels like a knife to cut through all the bullshit. Just Mercy would be escapism if it wasn’t true. Voiceover by Stevenson (the character) at the end of the film tells the audience that hopelessness is inherently opposed to justice. Cretton’s work here is not the subtlest of political filmmaking, but it does inspire hope.