LFF 2018 – Assassination Nation, Wildlife, Dogman

I’m currently attending the BFI London Film Festival, so will be popping in with reviews of everything I get the chance to see. For this first set, I’m cheating a little, with just one LFF press screening and then two movies that are playing at the festival, but I caught at screenings beforehand…

Sam Levinson's mad thriller Assassination Nation throws absolutely everything at the screen
Sam Levinson’s mad thriller Assassination Nation throws absolutely everything at the screen

Assassination Nation

More film festivals should start with ultra-violent, mad thrillers. The sophomore feature from writer-director Sam Levinson, Assassination Nation is certainly a bonkers indulgence of a tale. It opens with a declaration that this story is about “how my town, Salem, lost its motherfucking mind” and continues, somewhat smugly, with a list of “trigger warnings” for the movie to come, from abuse to racism, rape (attempted), transphobia and murder. It’s safe to say that Levinson ain’t messing around.

The meat of the story focuses on a group of teenage girls in Salem – a location historically renowned for its paranoia – who find themselves at the centre of a scandal involving the online leaking of incriminating private photos and messages. It’s a story that is like the LSD hallucination of a Black Mirror writer, taking modern fears about doxxing and online shaming to their logical, anarchic conclusion. This is a gender war and also a generational conflict pitting the Puritanical older people against the relative sexual freedom of their kids, who think nothing of having a mobile phone full of subtly different nude photo retakes.

At the centre of all of this is Odessa Young as high-schooler Lily. She’s a sexually liberated woman in an unhappy relationship with her boyfriend – dubbed a “straight-up sociopath” by Lily’s friends for his apparent phobia around cunnilingus. Her reprieve comes in texting an older man known only as “Daddy”, who seems willing to meet her needs. Her friends, at once slightly cartoonish and entirely believable, have their own problems. The standout is trans actress Hari Nef, in a burgeoning fling with a sports star but cynically aware that his much loftier social position will be a stumbling block for their relationship.

As much as Levinson is keen to push the envelope here, his attempts to make the movie serve as a critique on everything ultimately mean that it isn’t properly about any of those things. For all of the admirably snappy black comedy and blood-soaked directorial flair, there’s a real lack of focus when it comes to the meaning behind it all. Levinson’s sharp script is strong on one-liners and lands more than a few solid punches against toxic masculinity and online “lulz” culture, but ultimately ends up missing the mark when it should hit hardest.

(Dir: Sam Levinson, 110 mins, UK Release: November 23)

Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal star in Paul Dano's directorial debut Wildlife
Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal star in Paul Dano’s directorial debut Wildlife

Wildlife

After years as one of the most valuable character actors in Hollywood, Paul Dano has stepped up to the directorial plate for Wildlife. It’s a restrained, unusual drama that delves deeply into the psyche of the American nuclear family and the fragile position of the father. That fragility is embodied by Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), who suffers a crisis of masculinity when he loses his job and his wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) steps up to play breadwinner. Their son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould), is left trapped in the middle of the slowly crumbling marriage.

Dano’s movie, adapted from Richard Ford’s 1990 novel, elegantly creates the minimalist, chilly world of 1960s Montana. Any potential lapses into melodrama are exquisitely controlled and it’s the actors who are given the room to make a mark, with Mulligan in particular shining in a complex powerhouse of a performance that allows for real complexity. She’s measured and believable, even as she herself struggles with the fact she feels “the need to wake up, but I don’t know what from or to”.

Wildlife is an artful, subtle treat of a directorial debut that finds real emotional vibrancy amidst chilly, unwelcoming environs. Dano’s work is confident and assured, unafraid to let silences hang in the air or allow his audience to join the dots. It’s probably too quiet and subdued a movie for awards notices, but that’s a shame given the level of quality on show.

(Dir: Paul Dano, 105 mins, UK Release: November 9)

Marcello Fonte plays the leading role in crime thriller Dogman
Marcello Fonte plays the leading role in crime thriller Dogman

Dogman

The link between man and his best friend is made even more intense than usual in Matteo Garrone‘s Dogman – a movie in which the protagonist is as loyal, brave and indeed pathetic as his canine companions. That rather pathetic central character is weedy dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte), who combines his position as a wholesome and beloved member of the local retail community with a sideline dealing cocaine. One of his clients is the psychotic Simone (Edoardo Pesce) – a man prone to ugly rages and explosions of brutal violence.

Unsurprisingly, Marcello’s devotion to Simone causes a whole host of problems that see the big-hearted little dude in a fair bit of bother. Simone ropes him into a series of heists as a getaway driver for him and his callous criminal buds, with Marcello opting to return to one crime scene later in order to rescue a chihuahua one of the crooks had tossed into a freezer. It’s one of the movie’s many flourishes of black comedy, working as a surprising and welcome antidote to the frequent blasts of grostesquerie.

Garrone keeps the pace rather stately and the film never finds the extra gear it needs to work as a top quality crime thriller. The final scenes are intriguing as Marcello finally discovers he can bite as well as he can bark, but there’s a void where the climactic punch should be. It doesn’t quite stick the landing. Cats land on their feet, but Dogman stumbles.

(Dir: Matteo Garrone, 103 mins, UK Release: October 19)

BFI London Film Festival 2018
BFI London Film Festival 2018

Are you excited to see any of the above films? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section and make sure you keep coming back for the next few weeks for reviews of all of the best movies from the BFI London Film Festival 2018.

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