Sundance 2021: Midnight Dispatch
by Nicholas Russell

The Blair Witch Project and Hereditary cast long shadows over Sundance’s Midnight slate. Selections from the genre category often spawn copycats and inform cinematic aesthetics, even in non-genre films. Some trends are easier to track than others. Take the rise of the allegorical horror film, where supernatural forces stand in for emotional, psychological, and/or sexual trauma experienced by the protagonists. Films like The Babadook and It Follows, both of which screened in the Midnight category in previous years, have contributed to a marked shift in the critical perception of horror films, with thematic gravity and recurrent symbolism among their more identifiable hallmarks. Equally identifiable is the attendant discourse (lately in explainer posts and long YouTube dissections) over the “point” or message these movies might contain, with Easter eggs and hidden homages overshadowing any real analysis of what the film itself is or isn’t accomplishing.

There was a fair amount of expectation for this year’s Midnight selections to contain the next iteration of meaningful, shocking, or gossip-inspiring titles that could also be talked about as layered, complex examinations of real-world issues. One of these, Frida Kempff’s Knocking follows a woman named Molly (Cecilia Milocco) just released from a mental hospital who, upon moving into a new apartment, hears a persistent series of sounds coming from her ceiling that no one else seems to register. Kempff in a post-film Q&A described the film as a treatise on gaslighting and the consequences incurred by women who, specifically because of their appearance, aren’t believed. Here, I kept wondering why Kempff felt the need to state such an obvious facet, indeed the most obvious facet, of her film.

The “appearance” thread might be more obvious to the Swedish director and her country’s audience than to most. Molly is, among other things, a small, white woman living alone, the horror genre’s historical go-to for a sympathetic protagonist (which raises the question of how such movies would work with differently sized actors, specifically women that don’t fall into the category of small and diminutive to underline their vulnerability or weakness). And while the audience is primed to wonder about Molly’s psychological stability and persistent past, presented through evocative flashbacks, none of the characters she interacts with knows about her condition. The men in the building intimidate her by their presence and sometimes strange behavior, but by the time the knocking starts, there’s still been no revelation to them as to who Molly is or where she’s come from.

Once the narrative really kicks off, Kempff finds a committed collaborator in Milocco, whose performance is claustrophobic in its intensity, underplaying the movie’s most uncomfortable moments. There are remnants of Rear Window and Unsane here, especially in scenes photographed close or in small spaces, with little to no depth of field unless it’s to focus on objects of suspicion or uncertainty. Kempff certainly understands how to visually communicate paranoia, but, even at 78 minutes, Knocking starts to feel too long well before its conclusion.

At just under 90 minutes, Prano Bailey-Bond’s feature debut, Censor doesn’t have the same issue. Bailey-Bond co-wrote and directed this film, one of the most visually distinctive selections at the festival, one that confidently charts a hypnotic backwards walk from sanity. Censor is set in Thatcher’s England, where Enid (Niamh Algar) spends her days vetting low-budget horror and exploitation movies (known in the UK as “video nasties”) for violence and gore. One day, a title up for review seems to vividly recreate the mysterious circumstances under which Enid’s sister disappeared many years ago. From here, Enid’s focus and sense of time begin to deteriorate.

Censor is a film whose technical decisions easily could have distracted from the narrative. Distinct, colorful lighting pervades almost every scene, whether it’s the washed-out, sickly green of the censor’s office, or the otherworldly neon reds and blues that emanate from unseen sources throughout Enid’s waking life and nightmarish memories. As in The Vast of Night, Bailey-Bond also plays with the analog format of the time period, where television screens and the images they project blend together until it can be hard to define what is and isn’t real. All of these choices widen the scope of a fairly contained film and lend it a loose, almost drunken atmosphere. There’s also a smart beat at the film’s end, an interrogation or at least exploration of what it means to find catharsis or fulfillment in art. Ultimately, the film ponders how art alone can’t ever fully speak for or substitute a feeling, how a given work inevitably has to end, is finite, but that, whether because of personal resonance or unhealthy obsession, the feeling one attaches to it continues on. Calling Censor’s finale “wish fulfillment” is a little too simple, even as the end conjures a Funny Games kind of meta-logic, where Enid changes the very nature of the film at will. But what’s “actually” going on, seen in brief but unsettling glimpses, takes on a different significance, one truly horrifying in its implications.

Then there’s Rodney Ascher’s A Glitch in the Matrix, the most disturbing and resonant of the Midnight selections. Nominally an exploration of simulation theory and the rise of an increasingly popular idea that all of existence may be manufactured by a higher intelligence, Glitch is frightening for its exploration of obsession and the perils of feverish belief. Ascher has always excelled at unconventional illustrations for intricate concepts. In Glitch, almost every image is computer-generated, whether recreated in Minecraft, plotted onto Google Maps grids that look like they’ve been stretched from two dimensions into three, or created with software that emulates video game cutscenes. Most of the talking heads are anonymized via imaginatively rendered digital avatars (props to whoever created the guy who looks like a metallic Anubis in a business suit), but everyone featured is a true believer.

Footage from a 1977 lecture given by Philip K. Dick anchors each chapter, where AI, the multiverse, virtual reality, contemporary philosophy, video game violence, and real-life murder are all discussed in detail. Ascher knows that to present these topics without also interrogating some of their extremities would be a glaring omission. His main vehicle for this is Joshua Cooke, a man who murdered his parents after becoming obsessed with The Matrix and the possibility that his life wasn’t real. Cooke’s own recounting of the events takes up one of the longest, most disquieting sequences in the film. There is a dark side to the solipsism that simulation theory can inspire, Ascher shows, a place where individuality can curdle into the belief that no one’s actions truly matter and that other people simply aren’t real. “Loneliness, paranoia, and trauma play a role in the reality people construct for themselves,” says artist Emily Pothast, one of the interview subjects.

Coming Home in the Dark, James Ashcroft’s entry into the One Bad Night thriller genre, has that same sentiment on its mind, without any of the depth. A New Zealand family of four sets out for a camping trip and comes across two strangers who radically derail their plans. Both strangers, named Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and Tubs (Matthias Luafutu), initially seem inscrutable, even more so when they make a very sudden, very violent decision. But their reason, particularly the way that Ashcroft chooses to draw this revelation out, doesn’t justify the ominousness with which Ashcroft weights down the film.

The buzz surrounding Coming Home seemed to portend a jarring, dark experience. Even the moderator who introduced the premiere cautioned that the film was hard to watch—a drastic oversell. After the initial tension related to Mandrake and Tubs’s unpredictable personalities, the film grows tedious, with overlong moralistic conversations, repeated escape attempts, and very little of the kind of violence that Ashcroft hoped would “get under your skin”, as said during his introduction. And the scraping, sporadic score doesn’t add the jittery atmosphere Ashcroft clearly thinks it does. Somewhere, there’s a leaner, much shorter version of Coming Home that, factoring the aforementioned components, also spends less time on filler second unit photography and supposedly meaningful stares into the distance. But by that point, there wouldn’t be much left to watch.

Finally, we have the black hole that is Violation. Directed, written, and produced by Madeleine Sims-Fewer (who stars in the main role) and Dusty Mancinelli, Violation, as indicated by its title, seeks to instill apprehension and weariness to engage with its contents. During the festival, I had to verify my age before watching it. This is a rape-revenge movie, so the name fits. It’s also one that features so many infuriatingly calculated attempts at provocation that I wondered, for the first time in a long time while watching a movie, whether I should bother finishing it at all.

Sims-Fewer plays Miriam, a woman who, along with her husband, Caleb (Obi Abili), goes to accompany her sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and brother-in-law Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) on a camping trip in the woods. Miriam’s relationship with Caleb is strained to say the least, their physical attraction to one another stunted by unresolved issues that are only shaded in through expository dialogue. Miriam’s relationship with Greta is wrapped in barbed wire, their conflicting perspectives on shared memories and Greta’s general distrust of Miriam suffusing the entire trip. And then there’s Dylan, who flirts with Miriam one night, attempts to seduce her by plying her with alcohol, then assaults her the morning after while she’s still inebriated.

Mancinelli described the visual design of Violation as an attempt to recreate an assault survivor’s PTSD. There’s certainly a lot of off-kilter photography, with spinning or layered or crookedly angled shots of the forest and sky. Random, ham-fisted animal imagery abounds (spiders, wolves, rabbits, caterpillars, wasps, moths). Note the number of predatory species. Note Miriam's line “I don’t get hunting. What do you get out of killing animals?” and how it informs her vengeful machinations with Dylan later in the film. Note the score, disjointedly dramatic and orchestral (think The Favourite only in similarity of sound, not effect), with horror movie strings, in a film that largely benefits from a lack of non-diegetic sound.

Violation tries to disrupt traditional three-act narrative structure via a chronologically fragmented plot. Per the directors’ stated ambitions to emulate the destabilizing ordeal of PTSD, this seems like an obvious choice. Here, it makes the actual assembly of the film feel in-progress. The story jumps forward and backward in time so often, and in such bewildering order that, when key pieces of information are finally revealed, the film has spent so much time dancing around them that the audience will have likely already guessed what’s about to happen. It’s especially confusing because the scene where Miriam exacts her revenge on Dylan—the scene that’s already making the rounds online for its graphic and unyielding nature and which is likely to be the main point of expectation for word-of-mouth audiences—starts before we’re shown the reason why. But then this raises questions about whether we need to be told an explicit reason at all for such excruciating torture. Movies like Violation hinge on one or two standout sequences of extreme violence, effectively rendering any further enjoyment of them inert. Thus, everything before Miriam’s revenge feels like a preamble.

Aesthetic trends are often especially identifiable in genre films. With Violation, Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli utilize long takes, too often signaled as indicators of directorial sophistication and ingenuity, to spectacularly miscalculated effect. It’s clear the directors want the audience to be viscerally repulsed during Miriam’s rape, her drawn-out faux seduction of Dylan, and the belabored aftermath of his murder. Moments like these naturally make audiences self-conscious about their reactions. But the length of these scenes puts more focus on the filmmakers than any salaciousness or disgust intended, much like Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible. Some may find it admirable that Miriam remains mostly a cipher, even as we become privy to other characters’ harsh, unfair judgments about her. I kept coming back to the simple possibility that Sims-Fewer, who screams, grunts, vomits, and cries with unconvincing intensity, miscast herself in the role, one that is critically underwritten. No single facet of Miriam’s backstory makes her a compelling lead. Because the entirety of the film takes place in one of two closely related time periods, there’s little to understand about her beyond her trauma. Lacking the spareness and ferocity of a film like David Slade’s Hard Candy, Violation can only muster grotesque, self-consciously orchestrated violence and narrative monotony. I’ll likely tell a lot of people about Violation. It’s rare to be so thoroughly repulsed, though not for the reasons its creators hoped.