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.

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TIFF 2013: Joe (David Gordon Green, USA)

Further reaffirming the director’s apt handling of subtly wrought, moreover Southern-fried character and situational dramas, David Gordon Green’s full-on resurgence segues admirably from Prince Avalanche to Joe. Reveling in its immersive casting and setting-specific singularity, the film’s parallels to last year’s Mud only run as deep as you’ve heard – a well-intentioned derelict’s bond with a young man (Tye Sheridan) provides a welcome, transformative distraction from the latter’s everyday familial struggles. Running admirably deeper, Joe’s (Nicolas Cage) standing within his respective Smalltown, Texas community is a bit more palpably desirable, his haunting local legend chiseling away at him daily as the detriment of perpetuated loneliness builds in effective virility.

Enter key wayward youth, Gary, of whom catches his soon-to-be savior’s eye almost immediately upon scoring a spot among Joe’s modest backwoods workforce. Character-building remains steady from here while our two protagonists interact frequently with locals both amiable and the opposite, competent storytelling remaining just that given the wobbly arrangement of the pair’s chemistry-building sequences and corresponding tonal messiness.

Barring its questionable structural integrity, strong performances across the board and palpable commentary on the wide-reaching desire and necessity of capable father figures do wonders for Joe. The titular flawed antihero’s self-examination and reevaluation remain touching as Gordon Green’s discernible flourishes benefiting the proceedings from an equally resonant and technical standpoint. Jarring moody and sometimes violent infrequency detract from its poignancy, yet the fact of the matter remains: Joe is simply a solid chunk of regional storytelling bolstered by attention to detail and all-encompassing sensitivity regarding the handling of its subjects and situations.

Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2012)

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Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter was more than just a fine film. An unflinching realist’s portrait of mental illness as seen through the eyes of the afflicted – his family’s support and social standing both dwindling at an alarming rate – its unfailing sense of sympathy remained an infallibly respectable high point. Deftly executed through and through, I eagerly anticipated Nichols’ follow-up, Mud. This time playing as a sort of Southern-fried semi-fairy tale-cum-coming-of-age tale, it’s apparent that this now established filmmaker has found his niche as an accomplished storyteller, even if his latest can’t quite hold a candle to what’s to this day one of 2011’s absolute best.

Mud shines the spotlight on two best friends – Ellis and Neckbone – as their typically heightened adolescent sense of adventure lands them on an island inhabited by one “Mud” (Matthew McConaughey). Unknowing of the man’s past but supportive of his plans for a hopeful future, the two boys become increasingly involved in his plan to leave the island via a capsized yacht. Details naturally unravel pertaining to the former as Ellis’ curiosity digs himself into a seedy hole he may not be able to crawl out of; Mud’s very existence irrevocably altering his future.

Merely reviewing that long-winded but compelling synopsis reveals that Mud should be something of a gem among typically uninspired fare – a proverbial diamond in the rough that allows McConaughey to continue along a critically favorable path. Sadly, the film isn’t much more than aptly put together as its narrative walks a simple path of least resistance, pairing a concise coming-of-age element as it dully unravels its baser elements. Put plainly, the core concept is in itself more engaging than a bulk of the details fueled by Mud’s naive good-naturedness and foolish longing for the so-called love of his life.

In summary, Mud is rarely even particularly surprising albeit solidly, moreover routinely constructed. There’s a requisite amount of deep water for its characters to wallow in as events unfold, heartfelt interaction between them and noticeable if subdued dramatic highs, however it never manages to peak regarding its potential. It’s a serviceable third feature from Nichols, but outside of a simple air of intrigue and a partially self-redeeming third act, it all comes off as a bit lackluster in relation to what we now know the aspiring auteur is capable of.