Movie marathons are often meticulously planned affairs. The programmer works to find three films that fit well together, that flow from one to the next, sharing themes and style and content. However, sometimes you happen onto an amazing marathon entirely by accident. Sometimes, you get to watch Blue Ruin, We Gotta Get Out of This Place and Big Bad Wolves in a row at Fantastic Fest, only realizing afterward that you've stumbled into one of the greatest accidental triple features of all time.
Although each film has its own unique flavor, they all have one thing in common: criminal acts that go horribly and hilariously wrong in the most spectacular fashion possible. They're all crime films to some extent, but the focus is less on the crimes and more on how a few poor choices can spiral out of control, consuming and destroying everyone and everything in their way.
Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin is about as stripped down and straightforward as thrillers get. Macon Blair plays Dwight, a homeless man living out of his car who learns that the man who murdered someone very close to him is getting out of prison. With minimal dialogue and startling narrative efficiency, we watch him embark on a half-baked revenge scheme that's nothing short of terrifying.
What's most surprising and effective about Blue Ruin is how it refuses to glorify Dwight's mission, forcing him (and the audience) to deal with the violence that ensues head on. This is a film that pulls no punches, the rare thriller that chooses to open with violence and then spend the rest of the film wondering "What now?" Dwight is relatable and likable thanks to Blair's quietly brilliant lead performance, but he's no hero. He's no badass. He's just a guy. Watching a revenge film with a lead this normal is startling. Without the usual action movie tropes around, Blue Ruin is able to contemplate how violence begets violence and just how poisonous revenge really is. The handful of shootouts and fights play less like action and more like horror.
What is most astonishing about Saulnier's screenplay is how it refuses to make any easy choices. This is a film that exists in a moral no-man's-land, where grey is the color of choice and every hero is a villain to someone else (and vice versa). His direction is equally assured, letting lengthy conversations and encounters build into intense, nightmarish sequences before letting things explode into violence. There's one scene in a field that'll have audiences screaming in their seats. It's meat and potatoes filmmaking, but sometimes the best meals are the simplest.
While Blue Ruin excels at taking the quiet and contemplative approach to crime fiction, We Gotta Get Out of This Place is as breezy, tough and pulpy as an old noir paperback. It feels like a long-forgotten potboiler that you'd find in a rented beach house and devour in one sitting with a strong drink in hand. It's no accident that the opening titles stylistically recall the thrillers of the '70s. This is a deliberately old-fashioned movie that revels in style and language.
And boy, what language! Writer Dutch Southern's characters talk a lot, but they talk wonderfully, their words feeling hard boiled and deep fried. This may be a noir, but it's unapologetic about its Texas setting, giving all of the entertaining tough talk a layer of sweaty, grimy Southern sleaze. Listening to these characters converse is a joy.
Directors Simon and Zeke Hawkins deliver on their end as well, telling a tale of petty crime gone very, very wrong with nonobtrusive style. Mackenzie Davis, Logan Huffman and Jeremy Allen White all make for very effective leads, but the film really belongs to Mark Pellegrino, who is absolutely terrifying as the low-level criminal that our trio of heroes rip off. If that sounds like a vague plot description, that's because it is -- We Gotta Get Out of This Place is a film so packed with reversals and betrayals and twists and backstabbings that it's best to go in thinking it's one thing. After all, it's going to be something completely different before you know it.
If there's one complaint to be had about We Gotta Get Out of This Place, it's that it may be a little too simple. There really doesn't seem to be that much to take away from the film outside of "It's really easy to die in Texas if you piss off criminals." But that's a stupid complaint when a film is this assured and entertaining. It's not that this movie doesn't have extensive depth, it's that it doesn't have time for that crap because it's too busy telling one helluva yarn.
Of course, stories of people getting in over their heads and doing astonishingly stupid things to accomplish selfish goals aren't limited to the United States. For the craziest crime movie of the year, you have to look to Israel and Big Bad Wolves, the sophomore effort from directors Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales. The follow-up to their gory, hilarious horror flick Rabies, Big Bad Wolves is the story of a tough cop, the pedophile serial killer in his sights and the grieving father whose plan for revenge tangles them all together in the fiasco to end all fiascos.
It may surprise you to learn that a film that deals extensively with murder, pedophilia and torture is very funny, but Big Bad Wolves takes it a step further. This is a farce; a pitch-black comedy of errors that utilizes extreme violence in place of slapstick, gleefully pushing up against the walls of good taste with abandon. If Joel and Ethan Coen had an even more broken moral compass, they'd probably make something like this, with its deadpan comedy, intricate plotting and downright bizarre characters. Tzahi Grad is the standout in a solid cast, lending an uncomfortable amount of pathos and humor to what may very well be 2014's most memorable psychopath.
For a film that often seems like it has no right to work, it's shocking just how confident Big Bad Wolves is. Gorgeously shot and marvelously performed, it manages to have its cake and eat it too, sneaking sequences of extreme nastiness and cruel comedy into a package that oozes style and class. Like the best of the Coen brothers, this film is a walking contradiction, a minor miracle that has no right to work but somehow pulls it off. Papushado and Keshales are two of the most exciting filmmakers in the world right now. Let's hope they go three for three with their next one so we can all reap the benefits.
Blue Ruin, We Gotta Get Out of This Place and Big Bad Wolves are all bleak films. They all deal with the absolute worst that humanity has to offer. They're violent and unsettling and yes, all three are frequently very funny. You don't leave them feeling good about humanity, but you leave them satisfied and excited (well, you will if you have a pulse). The best kinds of crime stories are the ones where everything goes wonderfully wrong and you'll be hard-pressed to find better examples of agonizing failure than in these three gems.
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