Sundance Film Festival 2013 | I Used to Be Darker, Computer Chess, Kill Your Darlings and Ain't Them Bodies Saints
Too many movies, too little time to write about them. Perhaps inevitably, I've reached that point in the festival when I'm struggling to keep up with my own viewing schedule. It's a good problem to have—what did I come to Park City for but to watch lots and lots of films?—though I still wish I had the inhuman time-management skills of some of my contemporaries. Are there secret hours in the day I don't know about? Are you guys knocking out dispatches in your sleep? What gives?
Excepting maybe Sarah Polley's lovely essay-doc Stories We Tell, which my colleague Ben Kenigsberg wrote about from Toronto last year, the best movie I've seen at the festival so far is Matthew Porterfield's I Used to Be Darker. Though more conventionally structured than Putty Hill, the writer-director's improv-driven previous effort, this quietly devastating family drama feels like a major step forward. The story is bare-bones simple: Fleeing her job and boyfriend in Ocean City, Maryland, a Northern Irish teenager (unknown American actress Deragh Campbell, nailing the brogue) drops in unexpectedly on her aunt (Kim Taylor) and uncle (Ned Oldham, brother of Will), both musicians. What she doesn't know is that the two are in the process of separating—a development that has sent shock waves of resentment through their Baltimore household, many of them absorbed by their home-from-college daughter (Hannah Gross).
Darker traces the unraveling of a marriage through casually loaded conversations, elegantly framed hangout sessions and—a trademark of this enormously talented young filmmaker—cathartic musical performances. (There are one-take ballads here, performed by real-life troubadours Taylor and Oldham, that rival the poignant karaoke sequence in Putty Hill.) Unlike the director's previous work, the film is scripted, though it plays out in the same unhurried, quasi-plotless manner as its predecessors. Porterfield, whose parents divorced when he was about the same age as Gross's character, understands the way that hurt feelings get passed among members of a fractured family. His smartest choice may be telling the story from the perspective of a distant relative, whose presence adds another complication to an already complicated situation.
Though more modestly scaled than most of what I've seen at Park City, I Used to Be Darker looks like a bona fide Hollywood blockbuster compared to Computer Chess, the scrappy new effort from Andrew Bujalski. While fellow mumblecore mainstays the Duplass Brothers and Joe Swanberg have gravitated toward bigger budgets and name actors, Bujalski veers in the opposite direction with this ensemble comedy—a curious period piece about programmers gathered at a hotel for a computer chess tournament, some two decades before Deep Blue took down the world master. Shot on the ass-ugly video of its early-'80s setting, Computer Chess plays like both a micro-indie Christopher Guest movie and a pre-Internet variation on the usual mumblecore theme of human interaction filtered through technology. It's also largely a mess, with no dramatic stakes to speak of and only a handful of laughs. Still, I have to admire on some level Bujalski's willingness to make something even smaller—and much stranger—than his previous output.
On the other end of the underground-to-mainstream spectrum is Kill Your Darlings, John Korkidas's crowd-pleasing literary origin story. Basically Beat Generation: The College Years, the film zeroes in on the first meetings of its famous artist subjects, reducing their "New Vision" ethos to a series of CliffsNotes catchphrases while speculating wildly about a true-crime incident from their shared past. The performances are the lone saving grace here, with Daniel Radcliffe surprisingly affecting as the young Allen Ginsberg. Dane DeHaan nails the part of the magnetic Lucien Carr and Ben Foster is amusingly Peter Weller–ish as a gas-huffing William Burroughs.
Foster also appears in Ain't Them Bodies Saints, playing a sensitive Texas lawman cozying up to the baby mama (Rooney Mara) of an escaped desperado (Casey Affleck). Many of my peers were quick to praise David Lowery's languid neo-Western, but what I saw was a well-shot but mostly bloodless attempt to mimic the outlaw poetry of Badlands or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. (Speaking of the latter, the film's banjo-and-strings score is a blatant Nick Cave imitation.) To hear many critics tell it, the Grand Jury prize is Lowery's to lose; if that's true, I think we've just found this year's Beasts of the Southern Wild. And no, I don't mean that as a compliment.