Wild, Foxcatcher, Rosewater and More: Hunting for Hits at Telluride 2014

Steve Carell as John du Pont and Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz in FoxcatcherEXPAND
Steve Carell as John du Pont and Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz in Foxcatcher
Photo by Scott Garfield, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The Telluride Film Festival, where moviegoers chase the season’s new Oscar contenders, was full of dramas about the hunter and the hunted in its 41st incarnation this Labor Day weekend.

Three nominations are likely to go to Foxcatcher director Bennett Miller, Steve Carell as zillionaire wrestling buff John DuPont, and Mark Ruffalo as the Olympic champ DuPont pursued to coach his team, then shot dead. Channing Tatum’s moving performance as Ruffalo’s dumb yet deep (and deeply troubled) grappler brother deserves Oscar love too, though it’s less apt to get it. Carell is masterfully sinister, quietly psycho, but his unexplained, detached affectlessness threatens to make the movie inert. His cold emptiness is balanced by the radiant warmth of the wrestler brothers’ relationship.

In Andrea Di Stefano’s Escobar: Paradise Lost, cocaine exporter Pablo Escobar (Benicio del Toro) coolly eyes his prey, a Canadian naïf (Josh Hutcherson) courting his niece (gorgeous Claudia Traisac). Pablo is a family man, like Francis Coppola’s Godfather. He actually looks a little like paunchy Coppola, who did an Apocalypse Now panel at Telluride. When Escobar switches from welcoming the youth into the family to sending goons to pursue him through the mazelike alleys of a Colombian town, it’s predictable but gripping and suspenseful. It’s a B movie that takes perhaps too long to build momentum, and then takes off. For a first film, it’s impressive, and del Toro is good in an unflashy way.

Jon Stewart, who bonded with his old employee Carell at the festival, unveiled another directing debut, Rosewater, which earned him standing ovations from sold-out crowds. The title character is an Iranian “Specialist” (Kim Bodnia) whose job is to torture and interrogate Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) until he confesses to being a spy for the Jews who control American media. Actually he’s a Newsweek photographer who captured footage of government thugs killing voters protesting the controversial 2009 election. Despite traces of Stewart’s wit – Bahari tells Rosewater that Newsweek “isn’t worth controlling anymore” and tells a few New Jersey jokes – it’s a true story, serious as a heart attack. Bernal is magnetic and utterly winning, but the movie can’t contain his talent, and his torturer is a pallid character. I’m sure he was so in real life, but a movie about two characters can’t afford for one to be so dim. Stewart’s storytelling is a patchwork quilt with a lot of missing stitches. Still, when was there a better time for a movie about the Middle East with a happy ending that is real, not a Hollywood ending?

Andrey Zvyagintsev has a deft, sure hand in weaving another politically-charged film, Leviathan, my Telluride 2014 favorite. It’s like a Russian novel, a tragic, funny, epic, lyrical, symbolic, realistic character study of a small fishing town where one hothead nobody (Alexei Serebriakov) tries to resist the monster mayor (phenomenal Roman Madyanov), who’s out to seize his land, and win back his wife’s broken heart. The bleakly beautiful imagery has the vastness and grief-stricken grandeur of Breaking the Waves: a beached whale’s skeleton poetically suggesting the way corrupt authority strips bare the people’s dreams, a ruined church with religious icons blackened by campfire smoke, a bulldozer surreally demolishing a house. Madyanov especially is a larger-than-life marvel, and all the characters are bursting with life and reeking of vodka.

Reese Witherspoon in WildEXPAND
Reese Witherspoon in Wild
Photo by Anne Marie Fox; Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

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Telluride’s big world premiere was Jean-Marc Vallee’s Wild, which puts Reese Witherspoon back in the Oscar game, big time. In fact, she extends her range almost as much as Carell does his in Foxcatcher, playing Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir about her solo hike on the 1,000-mile Pacific Crest Trail, a grueling spiritual adventure. Scenes of Strayed’s perilous adventure alternate with scenes from the traumatic past that brought her to her vision quest: a failed marriage that was her fault, a dying mother (wonderfully played by Laura Dern), years getting wasted.

As Witherspoon told the Telluride audience, it wasn’t easy for her to do scenes of shooting heroin and having sex with two guys in an alley. Wild has some of the power of 127 Hours or Into the Wild (and more power than All Is Lost), only from a female perspective that makes it feel like news. In addition to the menace of nature, Witherspoon’s character has to face two male hikers right out of Deliverance. The scariest thing she has to face is her hunt for the biggest quarry of all: her true self.

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