Haida wildman ready for his close-up
REVIEWS EDGE OF THE KNIFE Starring Tyler York. In Haida, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable
THE FIRST feature shot entirely in the Haida language is an incantatory visit to a faraway time and place that is somehow still with us, in more than ghostly form.
Shot in various parts of Haida Gwaii, or what used to be called the Queen Charlotte Islands, Edge of the Knife takes place in an unspecified part of the 19th century, with very little visible intrusion from Europe. (That changes by the time of the film’s very brief coda.)
Two extended families meet on a small island ideal for summer hunting, cooking, and hanging out. Solid, slightly pudgy patriarch Kwa (Willy Russ) has been looking forward to seeing his buddy Adiits’ii, although he knows the guy is a somewhat troubleprone handful. (First-timer Tyler York resembles a shambolic Adam Driver in this part.) In any case, Kwa’s young son admires the lanky fellow’s free-spirited ways—a problem when he joins his hero on a fishing trip Dad is against, due to darkening weather.
Adiits’ii eventually rows home alone, and runs into the dense forest to escape punishment, if not shame. Most others assume he has died, and they all decamp to warmer climes while our guilt-ridden screwup struggles to survive the winter. As the man gets more desperate, he gradually loses his human bearing and begins to transform into a wild creature, known in Haida lore as a Gaagiixid, presented here with a simian gait and weird facial protuberances: part Sasquatch, part porcupine!
Back among the civilized folk, Kwa still yearns for revenge, although his wife, Hlaaya (Adeana Young), counsels restraint, insisting that if Adiits’ii should ever be found alive, there would be ways to reclaim him. Their dilemma could be seen as relevant to the task of recovering First Nations strays who wander into the lost world of drugs and alcohol, or are simply cut off from history and community. First-time codirectors Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-brown don’t overstate their intentions.
The foreground story is interesting, even if somewhat slowed by stiff staging and the notably phonetic recitation of nonpro actors. But look at the degree of difficulty they are working against, with fewer than 30 fluent Haida speakers on the planet today! What really sticks is the reconstructed slices of everyday life, with woven clothes and sleek carvings appearing strikingly modern in this arboreal context. And it’s fascinating to see the young people of more than a hundred years ago display different tastes in piercings, tattoos, music, and humour than their elders. In that and other senses, this Knife stays very sharp indeed. by Ken Eisner
WIDOWS Starring Viola Davis. In English and Spanish, with English subtitles. Rated 14A
CAN A popcorn movie have too high a pedigree and still do its job? That’s one of many intriguing questions raised but not really answered by Widows, which tackles the Big Subjects without quite being able to nail them down.
First off, this is from British director Steve Mcqueen, following his 12 Years a Slave success with a seemingly commercial genre exercise: an all-female heist movie. Like Ocean’s 8, it boasts an A-list cast caught up in a high-concept crime. Topping the bill, and probably Oscar-bound, is Viola Davis, as Veronica, happily married to Harry (Liam Neeson)—a doting husband, as we see in an early-morning preamble set in their swanky Chicago penthouse. He’s also a big-time thief, as we also discover in the tightly crosscut opening sequence. So the real trouble with Harry is that he’s dead.
The famous Five Stages of Grief are mentioned at one point, after Veronica starts meeting the women left behind by the other three men who died with her husband’s crew. Having to pay back a cool two mil, stolen from a Chi-town gangster (Atlanta rapper Brian Tyree Henry) looking to buy his way into local politics, is not usually on that list. This time it is, especially when the guy’s sadistic brother (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) is on the case. In fact, she’ll have to process her heartache by getting widows Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and Amanda (Carrie Coon) to help her pull off that One Last Job her hubby left behind.
Coon’s character proves a noshow—one of many dead-end subplots here—so the gals recruit a tough runner from the projects (Bad Times at the El Royale’s versatile Cynthia Erivo) to be their getaway driver. Somehow, a sidetrack with Alice working as an escort takes the story to Colin Farrell as Jack Mulligan, running against said gangster for alderman in a mostly black ward. Mulligan is hoping to inherit this power position from his corrupt father (Robert Duvall), but wants to play it straight, even though the district was created through ruthless ethnic gerrymandering.
As you can tell from this thumbnail outline, Mcqueen has attached a lot of hot-button issues to an ostensibly pulp story. His frequently preposterous script, adapted from a British TV series of the ’80s (and a U.S. copy from 2002), was cowritten with high-trash priestess Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects), and they throw several kitchen sinks into the works, but forget to add the fun. The movie wants to be taken seriously as a feminist and class-minded call to arms. And yet it never even bothers to interrogate the women’s complicity in their dead partners’ nasty careers. In the end, it’s neither profound social study nor bubbly caper flick, but just a kind of upscale widow dressing.
by Ken Eisner
Edge of the Knife.Tyler York plays the fabled Gaagiixid in the Haida-language feature,