Altered States gets unreal From J.D. Salinger to a Harlequin romance
I> BY ADRIAN MACK
t feels like the lowest form of button-pushing when a Hollywood movie puts a child in peril. Contrast this with the treatment Seth A. Smith brings to his superindie effort The Crescent, screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival on Friday and Sunday (October 6 and 8), which leaves a twoyear-old to fend for himself inside a huge and forbidding beachfront property after his widowed mom up and vanishes. If you’re a parent—not the vengeance-driven former specialops kind of parent grossly overrepresented in Liam Neeson’s filmography, but the regular kind, like the rest of us—smith’s movie is an authentically uncomfortable experience.
“I feel like this film’s got a specific demographic,” says the filmmaker, reached by the Straight in Halifax not long after The Crescent knocked them out at the Toronto International Film Festival. “Our Midnight Madness crowd was all 20-year-old men, and they get it on a different level, but I think parents truly will be creeped out in a different way.”
No shit: besides the clear and obvious physical dangers, a harrowing supernatural presence increases the menace for poor little Lowen (wonderfully played by the director’s own son, Woodrow Graves), whose very soul appears to be the prize in a tale inspired, Smith reveals, by Maritime ghost stories and the evidently haunted beaches in the vicinity of his own home. We know something’s amiss when Lowen’s mom, Beth (Danika Vandersteen), flatly states that she “feels nothing” at her husband’s funeral, just prior to relocating to the ominous modernist structure at the heart of the film.
Scaling his story up into the metaphysical allows the filmmaker to exercise his extravagant visual inclinations. Beth is an artist whose psychedelic marble paintings gradually come to represent a sort of membrane between the worlds of the living and the dead. In one of the film’s trippiest moments, those ravishing oily fractals conform into the shape of something that looks like a three-dimensional incubus. Smith snickers: “Kinda selfishly, I just wanted to marble someone. A person. I’d never seen it done before.” (Neither have we!)
You could say that The Crescent belongs to an exceedingly small but generally awesome subgenre of quasi– avant-garde beachside horror flicks that includes 1961’s Night Tide, 1962’s Carnival of Souls, and the marvellously weird 1973 zombie flick Messiah of Evil. Which makes it grist for the mill inside VIFF’S annual midnight feature program, Altered States. Like a couple of other films in this year’s series—the Lynchian body-swapping tale Animals (October 9 and 11); the time-andspace-dysfunction nightmare of The Endless (October 6 and 9)—The Crescent takes a fashionably gnostic view of reality, wrapping up ultimately with a mindfuck that catapults the viewer into a kind of polarity-switching infinity loop we don’t see coming.
“It’s a time when people are questioning things,” Smith offers. “Just the fact that Donald Trump is in the White House makes you feel like you’re living in a nightmare or a simulation. It just doesn’t make sense at all. A lot of things don’t make sense. People are kinda pushing new concepts and ways of looking at things, and I enjoy those stories because sometimes you just wanna escape this world, right? It’s a pretty dark place.”
The enigma of J.D. Salinger gets 2
another tweak in the awkwardly named Rebel in the Rye, an uneven biopic that will at least make you want to dig out your yellowed copy of Franny and Zooey.
How Salinger came to write Catcher in the Rye, which has been alienating adolescents since 1951, is not actually as familiar as his subsequent radio silence; after 1965, he never published another word. His early years are analogous to those of chronological cohorts like Norman Mailer—that is, first-generation Jewish-immigrant sons with artistic ambitions forged in the fires of World War II.
Nicholas Hoult—once the sweet star of About a Boy and more recently the wraithlike Nux of Mad Max: Fury Road—here plays Jerome David Salinger, called Jerry by friends. The Manhattan-born lad was expected to be a good earner like his father, Sol (Canada’s Victor Garber), a cheese wholesaler from Lithuania. Jerry’s WASP-Y mother (Hope Davis, in a dark wig) supported his creative talents, and allowed him to attend a writing program at Columbia University under the direction of well-connected editor Whit Burnett—thereby allowing the movie to display its best asset: Kevin Spacey, changing it up as a rumpled, sharp-tongued, but ultimately self-effacing intellectual.
When Spacey is around, the screen crackles, even when the homilies about “not letting your voice overwhelm the story” are too on-the-nose. Hoult’s New Yawk accent is variable, and he works hard to hold attention, generally succeeding, even if no one else generates much excitement in a tale that packs in a lot of historical incident on a limited budget.
Before the war, Salinger had a tormented affair with Oona O’neill (Zoey Deutch), who ultimately left him for Charlie Chaplin—which is a pretty interesting way to get dumped. As a soldier, he participated in D-day, the Battle of the Bulge, and the liberation of Dachau—all contributing to his PTSD, before they had a name for it, to the urgency of his writing, and to his ultimate seclusion in rural New Hampshire. These events are represented, briefly, and well-shot (if mostly in close-up). Other limitations may explain the absence of Jerry’s work trip to Vienna, just before the Nazis took over, and his friendship with Ernest Hemingway, in Paris, while the war was still on. (Jerry’s later discovery of an Indian religious guide is made unintentionally humorous by the casting of Bernard White, who plays a phony guru on Silicon Valley.)
Even if the somewhat stiff movie doesn’t quite fulfill its promises, it’s an impressive undertaking for writer-director Danny Strong. As a memorably diminutive actor, he’s better known as Doyle on Gilmore Girls and Jonathan on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But he’s also the series creator of Empire, and wrote scripts for things as different as Lee Daniels’ The Butler, two Hunger Games movies, and Game Change, the HBO movie about Sarah Palin. Dude’s definitely got game.
> KEN EISNER
The Crescent Between Us