After lulling us into a false sense of complacency with Friday’s clear skies, Utah apparently decided to give us a proper welcome with some real snow. So after a two-hour delay, crawling up the I-80 from Salt Lake City into Park City proper, past the occasional “IMPEACH” sign and hitchhikers on their way to the Women’s March, I was just grateful to have arrived (though a missed screening means word on Charlie McDowell’s intriguing sci-fi entry The Discovery will have to wait). Discoveries in general, though, are what Sundance is all about, positioned as it is at the beginning of the year, and featuring a host of relative unknowns right alongside more established filmmakers. When this year’s slate was first announced, however, I’ll cop to feeling a twinge of disappointment given the lack of major names, especially after 2016’s embarrassment of riches. But just hours after making my schedule, I was already experiencing anxiety at possibly missing out on a potential masterpiece buried within the thousands of press emails and spread across the umpteen festival theaters. After all, with a festival like Sundance, there’s always the possibility of being blindsided by, say, the next Primer. And that's really what keeps us going, isn't it? The thrill of stumbling onto a major work, something truly singular—there’s nothing quite like it.
Sundance’s New Frontier section, which positions itself “at the crossroads of film, art and new media technologies,” certainly embodied that sense of novelty with Travis Wilkerson’s Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? The screening had Wilkerson not just in attendance, but actually performing the film live, equipped with a microphone, MacBook, script and the theater screen. At once a documentary, personal history, film essay and performance piece, Did You Wonder traces Wilkerson’s attempts to exhume an unsavory piece of family history: the 1946 Alabama murder of Bill Spann, a “Dothan Negro,” by Samuel Edwin (“S.E.”) Branch, Wilkerson’s great-grandfather. The murder, to which a single newspaper clipping and a death certificate bear witness, isn't so much the defining throughline as it is the tenuous center that Wilkerson circles back to over and over, tracing a years-long search that began with his participation in the protests for Freddie Gray in 2015. Various threads and stories—all fascinating in their own right—spread out in all directions, only to wear thin or end completely: an Alabama school boycott led by Ed Vaughn; the rape of Recy Taylor and Rosa Parks’ efforts on her behalf (a decade before the Montgomery bus boycott); anecdotes of the segregated hospital to which Spann was brought.
Did You Wonder is the first of Wilkerson's films that I've seen, but I was immediately taken by his digressive essayistic style, which mixes archival and home footage, talking heads interviews (filmed in crisp black-and-white) and his severe, yet soothing voice (lent a certain immediacy by the occasional slip of a syllable or unintentionally prolonged pause). At key points, the anthemic “Hell You Talmbout” punctuates the flow—rousing and disruptive, as it should be. For a while, the film is what Wilkerson assures the audience from the outset: not a “white savior” but a “white nightmare” story, and to its credit, the story never becomes the former. But neither does it really complicate its perspective on the “consequences of racism,” so much so that it’s hard to perceive any sense of irony or self-awareness when Wilkerson intones that “whiteness will incinerate the whole world.” The film's key image should be the typographic representation of “Whose Side Are You On?” (the words in two blocks on either side of a giant question mark), but the one that lingers is of Wilkerson getting up to lead the audience in chanting: “Bill Spann! Say His Name!” (a reworking of “Hell You Talmbout”). The most accurate thing that can be said of Wilkerson’s achievement is that it is, indeed, performance, and I have to wonder whether that’s the best mode for expressing these concerns. The film becomes a “white nightmare” story in more ways than one.
More conventional, but far more satisfying is Landline, Gillian Robespierre's follow-up to Obvious Child, which premiered here back in 2014. I wasn't very taken with that film, so there wasn't much chance that I'd see this effort as sophomore slump, but Robespierre improves on her debut in almost every way. Set in New York in the 90s, the film follows two sisters, Ali (Abby Quinn) and Dana (Jenny Slate), who discover that their father (John Turturro) is cheating on their mother (Edie Falco). The situation is complicated by the fact that Dana herself had just cheated on her fiance (Jay Duplass). So far, so Sundance. What sets the film apart is how adroitly Robespierre manages to undercut expectation, often crafting scenes that head in one direction, only to have them pivot—either in tone or intensity—in surprising and wholly satisfying ways. (An extended Halloween night—the film’s dramatic centerpiece—is particularly impressive.) Not everything lands, but the thorny family dynamic is what needs to resonate, a task for which the superb ensemble cast proves more than capable. (You'll certainly hear about the two leads elsewhere, so I want to give some space to Edie Falco and Jay Duplass, who do wonders in small, but crucial roles.) And while the 90s setting provides ample room for quick laughs and warm nostalgia, the details feel rich and textured, dictated by the story, rather than the other way around. (Notice a shot that lingers with Ali just outside a stairwell door before plunging into the pulsing, neon blue interiors of a club.) It's flawed and messy, but also deeply felt and pulsating with energy—it’s the kind of film that you end up feeling glad you gave a chance.
And then there are the films that make you wish you hadn't. Playing in Sundance's Midnight program, Damien Power’s horror-thriller Killing Ground is as repugnant a film as I've seen in a while, even more so because it's hyper-aware that it's a Midnight sort of film. A couple goes on a camping trip and finds an empty tent with the family nowhere to be found. What could possibly have happened? Granted, the film's structural gambit of interweaving two different timelines (and thus two different sets of killings) is what initially holds interest, a way of addressing the inevitability of its genre constraints while delivering on basic audience expectation. Ultimately, though, it ends up as just another act of pointless sadism. A belated act of cowardice makes one long for the horror-thriller version of The Loneliest Planet buried deep within the film’s cheap thrills, but it's too little, too late, the film's pointed final shot notwithstanding. “If you don't like it, change the ending,” says one of the characters in an ironic bit of self-reflexiveness. Unfortunately, the ending is maybe the only thing that works.
In the grand scheme of things, being let down by a chance screening isn't terrible. Far more crushing is the feeling of being disappointed by a highly anticipated title. That fortunately wasn't the case with Wind River, Taylor Sheridan's directorial debut, but neither did the film live up to my (admittedly high) expectations. Set in the Native American reservation in Wyoming that gives the film its title, Wind River follows Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), an FBI agent called to investigate the rape and murder of a local Native American teenage girl, and Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), the local hunter who first finds the body frozen in the snow. The film, which sticks fairly close to its broader story expectations, very clearly extends Sheridan's authorial voice, trafficking in similar characters (Olsen in Emily Blunt's Sicario role) and dynamics (bureaucracy and the rule of law pitted against the Western landscape), while still twisting genre conventions in interesting ways. But while there's much to recommend the film, particularly its (literally) elemental focus on genre and specificity of place, it’s the weakest of Sheridan's projects thus far. The dialogue, awkwardly caught between Sicario’s terse realism and Hell or High Water's flavorful stylization, is surprisingly weak. The structure, too, though it has a few fascinating gambits, can feel rather mechanistic. But what his script (uncharacteristically?) lacks, Sheridan makes up for with some remarkably assured direction, and proves himself to be adept at tense action, above all else. An opening sequence of a woman fleeing barefoot in the night, accompanied by some beautifully written voiceover, sets the bar high; the scene that follows, which sees three wolves summarily dispatched, is even better; and two climactic sequences (too good to spoil, except to note a satisfying callback to the second sequence) are better still. Wind River may not fulfill the ample promise of Sheridan's career thus far, but it proves that he's more than capable of doing so in the future. I'm already looking forward to it.
As you can probably attest to, the anticipation—it never really ends.