South by Southwest 2012 | The Cabin the Woods, Sun Don't Shine, The Imposter, Jeff
South by Southwest Film has kicked off what by all accounts is the wettest opening in memory, with a weekend of rain snarling driving in a town where pedestrian techies and musicians have traffic patterns all their own. Appropriately for the weather, early offerings seem to have gone heavy on the grim and macabre, although that may be a matter of the path I've chosen. (I suppose if I focused this post on The Babymakers and Gimme the Loot—the former a slack comedy in which an infertile man plots to rob a sperm bank; the latter a crowd-pleasing, gratifyingly modest NYC indie in which a graffiti artist at one point plans to rob the young woman he's sold weed to—I could declare this fest's theme "amateur heists.")
Received by Joss Whedonologists as a towering achievement that will redefine horror filmmaking for a generation, the opening-night film, The Cabin in the Woods, is okay. And that's about all there is to say on the matter, given the premium the filmmakers put on secrecy. It's hard not to respect their desire for surprise: Cabin begins as yet another gloss on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with five coeds heading to a remote backwoods lodge for a libidinous weekend, but it quickly reveals itself to be equally influenced by a panoply of other horror movies, which are best left unnamed. The film even engages in autocritique, drawing a parallel between blockbuster filmmakers and the forces of evil. Still, just because it's self-reflexive doesn't mean it doesn't practice what it pretends to satirize—even if Whedon and Goddard are clearly aware of that, too. Witty when it doesn't come across as calculated, Cabin flatlines with some last-act overkill and then rallies with a ballsy WTF ending. I guess you'll have to see for yourself.
A more interesting—and very different—example of backwoods horror, Sun Don't Shine, the feature-directing debut of prolific indie actress Amy Seimetz, is another case in which revealing details might spoil a filmmaker's high-wire act; let's just say the movie opens in medias res, with a man (Kentucker Audley) roughhousing his girlfriend (Kate Lyn Sheil) on a muddy Florida roadside. Where they're going and why is initially obscure, but what at first seems like a meandering road movie gradually reveals as something more taut—both as an examination of a relationship dynamic and of how the vastly different personalities react to an urgent task. Seimetz could have probably done without the faux-Badlands scoring, but this is promising work.
Another film that keeps audience sympathy in flux, Bart Layton's documentary The Imposter tells the story of Frédéric Bourdin, who in 1997 successfully posed as a missing San Antonio child and was welcomed into the family's home—despite being six years older than the boy and looking nothing like him. At first the film seems like an example of great subject matter trumping great storytelling, but Layton engages in a Capturing the Friedmans–like narrative volley, gradually revealing details about the case in way that keeps viewers guessing. Like Bourdin, the movie is out to fool us.
I caught a considerably less compelling true-crime story with Jeff, a documentary on Jeffrey Dahmer told predominantly from the perspective of three people affected by the case—a forensic investigator, an interrogator and one of Dahmer's neighbors. The details about policework are fascinating (when you're interviewing a suspect after finding a human head in his refrigerator, do you offer him a cup of coffee and a cigarette?), but there's nothing revelatory here, and the movie's attempt to decry the way society turns serial killers into celebrities—when that's the film's primary selling point—seems like double-dealing. With any luck, today's offerings will be a bit, er, fresher.