For the seasoned Sundance-goer, returning to this film festival for the first time since January 2020 can feel like a half-comforting, half-disorienting resumption of family rituals. Aside from the occasional masked face poking out of the usual parka and beanie ensemble, you can almost convince yourself that nothing has really changed, that a three-year-old blip of pandemic really hasn’t happened. Here we are, at last, lining up as usual in the same crowded lobby at the Eccles Theatre, a 1,269-seat high school auditorium that serves as the festival’s biggest venue. And here we go again, heading to Main Street for a midnight movie at the Egyptian Theatre, because that’s what you do at Sundance, dammit, and who doesn’t want to see Sarah Snook go into a scream queen rage in An Aussie Mommy’s most beloved outbreak called “Run Rabbit Run”?
That film, which offers a succession of initially effective scares before evolving into “Run Rabbit Run Rinse Repeat,” may not have been the second coming of “Hereditary.” But I was happy to see him in a packed Park City house anyway, happily sandwiched between two friends whose nervous laughs, along with Snook’s characteristically endearing performance, were more than enough to keep me in my seat. But will you stay in yours? Shortly before the first screening of “Run Rabbit Run” on Thursday night, a programmer announced that the film had been acquired by Netflix. Which means you’ll soon be able to watch it from the comfort of your own home, albeit with the luxury of skipping ahead or even turning it off if you find it too creepy, derivative or boring.
That’s the streaming junkie’s prerogative, of course, and God knows Netflix puts out more than its skippable share. But if returning to a personal Sundance has shown us anything these early days, it’s that even a movie you might have tried to advance at home – or avoid in the first place – can become something altogether more engaging, and even indelible, when projected onto a large screen in front of an enthusiastic crowd. Films as strong as “Fair Play” and “Magazine Dreams,” which brought the festival’s drama competition to life in the United States on Friday afternoon, might even convince you that they have the makings of a possible escape, even if the troubled economics of the movie industry — driven home by recent news of widespread closures of Regal Cinemas theaters across the United States, six of them in Southern California — tells a much more depressing story.
But enough of the existential doom and gloom for now. I come to this festival not to write premature obituaries for the cinema, but to witness its promising signs of rude good health. And there were plenty of those signs in “Fair Play,” a wickedly insightful psychological thriller that marks writer-director Chloe Domont’s hauntingly assured debut. It tells the story of Emily and Luke (Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich, both excellent), two ambitious analysts at the same Manhattan hedge fund. They are also, secretly, a couple – a violation of company policy that becomes increasingly complicated when Emily lands the big promotion they both thought would go to Luke.
Why they took on such a thing in the first place is a mystery that Domont will spend the rest of this film examining, and if the answers are obvious enough – the fragility of the white male ego in general, the pervasiveness of financial misogyny in particular – the upheavals that ensued. luckily they are not. Deftly darting between his protagonists’ perspectives while making it abundantly clear where his sympathies lie, Domont transforms a couple’s bedroom and a company boardroom into brutally complementary war zones. She also fills the film with memorable supporting actors, including the great Eddie Marsan as a reptilian CEO and Rich Sommer as a much more menacing version of the dickhead publicist he played in “Mad Men.”
That show, so astute in its grasp of an earlier era of corporate sexism, isn’t the only thing that might come to mind as you watch “Fair Play.” Sometimes I thought back to “Margin Call,” that elegant, quiet drama about Wall Street on the eve of the 2008 financial crisis; in a few others, my mind went back to “Promising Woman,” although for those eyes, Domont’s fearless consideration of male violence and female judgment draws far more blood, literally and figuratively. Is it possible that both movies were on my mind because I first saw them here in Park City? Perhaps yes. One of the pleasures of going to festivals regularly is that you not only retain memories of (some) films you saw, but also where and when you saw them. If you’re lucky, you might even remember the charge they sent into the crowd, the sense of an exhilarating discovery being made almost in unison.
“Fair Play” delivered that payload, and so, to a much darker, slower effect, did “Magazine Dreams,” a brutal study in physical extremities and psychological breakdown built around an utterly astonishing performance by Jonathan Majors. For 124 patiently watched minutes, Majors fully inhabits the ripped abs, swollen arms and bruised soul of a bodybuilder named Killian Maddox – a name Killian keeps repeating, in full, throughout the film. He hopes that name will be famous one day, that after years of obsessively pumping iron, hitting 6,000 calories a day and injecting himself with steroids, he might eventually appear on the covers of men’s fitness magazines across America. It’s a dream that – as filmed in long, hypnotic shots of bulky male bodies strutting and posing under chandelier lights – soars defiantly in the face of the trauma, poverty and poorly modulated rage that define Killian’s existence.
The repetition of “Killian Maddox” has its own unsettling effect on audiences, in part because the first four letters spell “kill” and in part because filmmaker Elijah Bynum clearly wants us to think of another sociopathic antihero of unforgettable name, Travis Bickle. . The invocations of “Taxi Driver”, a classic that American filmmakers never tire of referring to, are countless and sometimes obvious to the point of ritualistic, from the reckless encounter in which Killian has sex with a sweet co-worker (Haley Bennett). to the unnerving sight of him buying and assembling a firearm. That sequence and others, which almost defy us to see word bubbles like “mass shooting” and “crazed incel” hovering around Killian, tied my own definitionless stomach muscles in knots.
But Bynum is also conducting, in the long tense, operatic moments of his narrative, a provocative investigation into Killian’s capacity for violence – a capacity he recognizes and questions repeatedly by having Killian entertain a murderous fantasy, again and again, just to draw him out. it back from the edge. This kind of bait-and-switch can become tiresome over the course of the long film and not entirely sustained for more than two hours, but it’s also rooted in legitimate issues. How much truth can we extract from Killian’s own criminal record, especially given the aggressive policing we see him being subjected to? Does he pose more or less of a threat to society than, say, the racist white men who beat him up in retaliation after a series of escalating altercations?
In those moments, Killian’s body – which is also, irreducibly and inseparably, Majors’ body – becomes both a hypnotic visual spectacle and a kind of argumentative vessel, which absorbs the fears and assumptions that bind black men in America. by default. Those assumptions will certainly continue to be debated – though the greatness of Majors’ performance, I suspect, will not – as this furious, darkly funny, agonizingly dark vision makes its way through Park City and, hopefully, beyond.