PFF24: Entertainment (Rick Alverson, USA)

In consecutively subverting convention, Rick Alverson has tacked his absurdist singularity onto his latest feature for better but mostly for worse. Entertainment follows bitter middle-aged comedian’s (Gregg Turkington) tour through the desolate American Southwest. Performing for almost no one in between failed attempts at reconciling with his estranged daughter, the man’s dwindling sense of purpose as loneliness silently crushes him becomes more oppressive on an increasingly bizarre journey from venue to venue.

Alverson’s follow up to 2012’s rather excellent The Comedy forgoes offbeat humor and incisiveness for something decidedly plodding and self-indulgent. In following The Comedian throughout a fruitless journey across abyssal landscapes, Entertainment struggles to combat the simplicity of its themes with increasingly surreal set pieces. It’s hard to imagine things going anywhere but up from the film’s opening prison sequence, yet this assumption is quickly squashed as Turkington’s squirm-inducing onscreen persona traipses to and fro, much to our mounting discomfort.

Entertainment isn’t entirely without merit as The Comedian’s live act remains unfailingly hilarious. These performances are an almost too-sharp departure from the film’s more startlingly abstract moments – of which disturbingly culminate in a rest stop restroom – but do enough to elevate what’s ostensibly a self-aggrandizing character study devoid of imitators to its own detriment. Whether this reads as either misguided or reductive, there’s no arguing that the film’s singularity is decidedly black-and-white in terms of accessibility and broad appeal.

Entertainment is worthy of note thanks to its acutely subversive personality and not much else. Its darkly comedic sensibilities remain effective as the dissection of The Comedian’s crumbling offstage existence remains more disconcerting than sympathetic in scope. Many may argue in favor of Alverson’s vision and the end result it’s yielded, yet Entertainment remains too hard to recommend to those not enamored with The Comedy or the divisive manner in which he fleshes out his films’ core subjective through lines.

TIFF 2013: The Sacrament (Ti West, USA)

Drawing immediate but discernibly immersive comparisons to the early ’70s-established Jonestown settlement, Ti West’s The Sacrament follows an unbiased, well-intentioned Vice correspondence crew to a comparable offshore community with the intention of seeking out photographer Patrick’s (Kentucker Audley) estranged sister. Not knowing what to expect, these gentlemen go about their business, systematically interviewing the locals of Eden Parish so as to achieve their wraparound goal in producing a compelling documentary. Collectively conducted without a hitch, interviews and the like lead them to believe that everything is as it seems, Patrick’s sister embracing the benefit of the doubt until their interference inevitably procures and sustains a life-threatening butterfly effect.

Despite its thinness, Ti West’s career arc thus far has yielded a trio of individually distinct efforts, The Sacrament this time remaining more unsettling than terrifying in a traditional sense. Pairing the well-worn found footage approach with a characteristic and increasingly tense slow burn, West’s directorial eloquence is often palpable in the form of detail-heavy world building and execution, his intentions in presenting the natives as eerily relatable and rational thinkers sustaining a superb deftness. From faith-fueled, seasoned seniors to twentysomethings on the existential mend, these individuals all convincingly articulate why Eden Parish was right for them, their newfound lifestyles ringing agreeable even if the Vice crew and viewers alike wouldn’t join their ranks.

Finding additional strength in a necessarily charismatic group leader, The Sacrament further bolsters this acuteness through a particularly tense live interview conducted with “Father” (Gene Jones). Each answer given is a bit more than stock and tastefully mania-free, the ensuing elongated paroxysm remaining expected based on our previous experiences with West’s work. As things snowball hellishly out of control via a fist-clenching stretch of horrifying continuity, The Sacrament assuredly achieves a lasting effect, the well-rounded, researched and implemented sum of its parts overcoming trite found footage exposition and build-up.