Toronto International Film Festival 2011: Twixt, Shame

Val Kilmer and Elle Fanning in Twixt

Val Kilmer and Elle Fanning in Twixt

More than any living director, Francis Ford Coppola has been the victim of his past history: When you make a canonical masterpiece like The Godfather in your early thirties, you inevitably spend the rest of your career straining to top yourself. Admirably, Coppola has responded to this dilemma by continually trying to make different kinds of movies. Since returning to the screen after a decade hiatus with 2007's Youth Without Youth, everything he's made has looked utterly sui generis.

That's not always a good thing: Youth Without Youth strained to find visual correlatives for its pretentious source material, and Tetro (2009) was so studied that even Vincent Gallo seemed subdued. But Coppola's new Twixt, which had its world premiere here yesterday, improves on those films mainly by being a goof, albeit one apparently laced with autobigraphical details (Coppola choked up at his press conference talking about the boating-accident sequence) and influenced by the director's time as a Roger Corman apprentice. The film's plot involves a third-rate horror writer named Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer) who comes to a small town where time quite literally stands still. He's enjoined to work on a new novel after the crusty local sheriff (Bruce Dern) comes to him with an idea for a vampire story. One gets the sense that the narrative—involving a mass murder, an island of misfit teens and Edgar Allan Poe, who serves as tour guide to Baltimore's dreams—is largely incidental, and indeed, the details aren't crucial; Coppola is reportedly planning some sort of crazy scheme whereby he travels with the film and re-edits it live. (I'd suggest adding a digital Rod Serling.)

If the young man who directed Pacino and Brando in their prime could get Kilmer and Dern to invest themselves in the material at all, we might be talking about a modest classic. As is, Twixt is a case where one needs to disregard the slapdash storytelling and acting in order to appreciate what's singular about the film. The visual layering—which, in its sudden flashes of color and use of dreamy black-and-white, suggests something like Sin City crossed with Godard's In Praise of Love—is extremely striking, and two 3-D sequences make effective use of the format. Is Coppola leading the way? Talking to journalists, the director pointed out that we forget that movies are still a relatively young medium. Our grandchildren will probably be the ones who show us what film "is."

It might look something like Steve McQueen's Shame, which applies the formal mastery the British visual artist unveiled in his great feature debut, Hunger (2008), to a more conventional character study of a white-collar NYC sex addict (Michael Fassbender) whose secrets become threatened when his wayward sister (Carey Mulligan) moves in. McQueen tells his story through impressive, uncannily timed long takes and a minimum of dialogue; Fassbender, who turned up at the festival last night after all, having been delayed by a prize in Venice, makes his performance mostly a matter of subtle facial tics and glances. The sound design is more conventional than Hunger's, as is the narrative arc, which observes Fassbender's character's terror of social attachments. (Like A Dangerous Method, there are times when the movie threatens to turn into a crypto-comedy.) But for pure moment-to-moment tension, little at the festival has come close. Let's hope McQueen doesn't become a victim of his history.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)