By NEIL GENZLINGER APRIL 22, 2012
If you’re one of those people who like to leave a movie theater feeling as if you’ve been punched, the Tribeca Film Festival stands ready to slug you.
This year’s broad lineup includes an assortment of movies that can fairly be described as twisted in one way or another — films with a premise or tone that is somehow unsettling. And to me that’s a compliment.
Note that “twisted,” in my categorization, doesn’t mean “has lots of plot twists,” though some twisted movies do. Nor does it refer merely to horror films, though some twisted movies are. Twisted movies might be creepy or comic, convoluted or straightforward. But all have that stumbled-into-a-boxing-ring effect, a metaphor inspired by one of this year’s offerings, a gruesome lament called “Cut.”
The film is by the Iranian director Amir Naderi but is set in Japan, where a young cinephile and filmmaker named Shuji (Hidetoshi Nishijima), in making his movies, has fallen into debt to some mobsters. He comes up with a novel way to earn what he needs to repay them: for a fee he lets people punch him. Hard.
The gimmick catches on among a rough crowd, and his debt is substantial, so there’s quite a lot of slugging. The allegory about the struggles of art, especially in places like Iran, is delivered as relentlessly as the punches, and in case you missed the point, Shuji often mutters pretentious gibberish about the death of filmmaking while he’s being hit. At one point he names 100 great films while absorbing 100 punches. Yes, one is “Raging Bull.”
There are no over-the-top fisticuffs in “The Playroom,” an unnerving look back at the 1970s by Julia Dyer, but it’s jarring in its own quiet way. The film stars Molly Parker and John Hawkes as a suburban couple who embody everything that felt so empty about that decade: she drinks and doesn’t care about her children; he is so overeager to do things a certain way that he can’t see the obvious. The real star, though, is a newcomer named Olivia Harris, who plays their oldest child, Maggie.
She leads her siblings in group storytelling, an escape mechanism for the unspoken tensions in the family, which simmer to a boil one ugly night. Ms. Harris is also quite a singer. Over the closing credits she delivers the eeriest, loveliest version of “Up on the Roof” you’re ever likely to hear.
When the children in “The Playroom” find their domestic world turned upside down, a good source of advice might be a fellow named Tul, a former police officer now a hit man, who is at the center of “Headshot.” Tul (Nopachai Jayanama) knows something about upendedness: early in the film he is shot in the head, and when he recovers, he sees everything upside down.
Pen-ek Ratanaruang, the director of this somewhat abstruse crime story from Thailand, wisely doesn’t overindulge in shots from Tul’s flipped-earth perspective. There are just enough to make you a little dizzy, and glad that you’re seeing things upright.
A head injury also figures in my personal favorite on this twisted-movie list: the Spanish film “As Luck Would Have It,” by Álex de la Iglesia. Pity poor Roberto (José Mota), who is out of work and adrift and wants simply to revisit a place that once meant a lot to him and his wife (Salma Hayek). He unexpectedly finds construction in progress there, and before long he has fallen onto a rock and ended up with a metal spike sticking into the back of his head.
Roberto remains conscious, but the rod is positioned in such a way that he can’t be moved. “The problem is it’s pressing against the sagittal sinus,” a doctor tells his wife, and you don’t want a metal spike pressing against your sagittal sinus. Word of the bizarre accident spreads quickly, and the news media swarm.
Within minutes Roberto has representation from an outfit called Celebrities in Action. (“I have some awesome ideas for product placement,” someone there says during a brainstorming session.) It’s all delightfully absurd, echoing “Network” and its heirs. And it will make you take extra care when walking past a fence or construction site or anyplace else where metal rods are protruding.
Meanwhile “Rubberneck” might make you take extra care in your choice of office-fling partners. This unnerving film by Alex Karpovsky may sound from a plot description like an ordinary sexual-obsession story, but Mr. Karpovsky catches and sustains an ominous tone that gets under the skin.
He also turns in a nicely broody, moody performance as Paul, a lab worker who has a weekend fling with a colleague (Jaime Ray Newman) and can’t handle her subsequent rejection. Maybe it’s the lab coats that make this oft-told tale seem new and newly creepy. Evil is one thing; evil plus science is quite another.
Also getting good mileage out of a familiar setup is “Replicas,” by Jeremy Power Regimbal. We’ve seen home-invasion stories before. But the invaders who intrude on a family at a vacation home in the woods in this film aren’t your average thugs. They don’t seem like invaders at all at first. But once their true nature emerges, they have some discomforting predilections.
Plenty of other films on Tribeca’s schedule that I haven’t yet seen might make my twisted hall of fame. “Jackpot,” which apparently involves body parts and a lottery prize, seems promising. “Deadfall” has a bag of cash, a blizzard and Sissy Spacek. By the time the festival closes Sunday, I expect to be thoroughly punch-drunk.
More information on the Tribeca Film Festival is at tribecafilm.com.