It’s only my second full day of films and I’m already starting to feel burnt out. Film festivals are a test of stamina more than endurance; it’s less whether you can make it through and more whether you can still form a cogent sentence halfway through. Fortunately today was a three-film day, and one—Only Lovers Left Alive—was superb enough to warrant its own review. Here are some thoughts on the other two.
Wajma is a typical 20 year old Afghani woman. When she begins to see a waiter and family friend, Mustafa, he convinces her to visit him in secret and tries to compel her into kissing him, which given their not being married, would be considered immoral. She has to make sure the neighbours don’t see her; they’re not allowed to show affection in public.
Mustafa’s behaviour is peppered by proclamations of love, so he at first seems mostly desperate and relatively innocuous. But when Wajma falls pregnant it becomes clear that Mustafa has coerced her into sex. He denies that he could be the father because he didn’t see any blood from her broken hymen (such an insidious assumption, that one). Wajma is subjected to brutal treatment from the men in her life, whether emotionally or physically, and this makes for some incredibly harrowing scenes.
The main problem with Wajma is that its narrative lacks focus; it takes such a meandering path to its first major conflict, and then ends on a similarly underwritten note. But the thought process is there, and much of Wajma is inspired by real events which lends its bleakness a real prescience. Wajma’s brother is seen taking a massive dog to dog-fights; her father finds work defusing bombs and landmines.
This is a masculine world to the point of hatefulness; the trauma bestowed upon Wajma by the society in which she lives is enough to overcome the occasionally poor performances and novice direction. This is only the second feature of writer-director Barmak Akram, though, and if Wajma is any indication, he has great films in his future. Wajma is Afghanistan’s submission to the 2014 Oscars and, while it’s unlikely to be nominated, it is definitely a worthy watch.
I wanted to like Blue Ruin a little more than I did; it had me very much in its thrall until its third act where it chooses to take some unnecessary downtime. It felt almost as though the film came in at about 82 minutes, and they wanted to make it a neat 90 instead. What transpires in that time is necessary to the plot, but it felt so shoehorned in that it broke the film’s spell just a little bit. The rest of the film is so taut that you never question the actions taking place, but as soon as it lets its guard down, it falters a bit too much.
We meet protagonist Dwight as a drifter; rummaging through dumpsters for food, sleeping in a parked car on the beach, sneaking into a house to use their bathtub. A police officer rolls up one morning and brings him in to tell him that a convict is being released from prison. Suddenly, Dwight is all action. He sets out for his childhood home in Maryland where his sister now lives, intent on an act of revenge.
Macon Blair IS Blue Ruin. His central performance is stunning from start to finish. It’s a shame that the film around him can’t quite keep up, but it’s still a highly propulsive, tense thriller. Its sheer economy is impressive (with the exception of that section in the last half hour), proving writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s ability to tell a story visually.
There are a few great set pieces here and some legitimately shocking moments, some of which may recall last year’s Sightseers in viewers’ minds. It’s a neat little way to spend an hour and a half, and proves that mainstream thrillers—especially in light of the bloated, self-important Prisoners—have lost their knack for this kind of clever, detailed tension.
[rating=3] and a half
Tomorrow: My Sweet Pepper Land, Short Term 12, The Congress, A Touch of Sin
Laurence Barber - follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.