TIFF 2011, Day 5: The Day, Killer Joe, Hysteria

For as little attention as The Day gives to its backstory, it might well be set in the same universe as The Road. Like that film, there’s not much left in the way of plant or animal life, though it’s never explained why, and the few survivors have either banded up into roving gangs of cannibals, or resisted the temptation (which means a much rougher go of it, what with the global famine and all). But where The Road used its post-apocalyptic setting to examine the relationship between a father and son (and to depress the hell out of everyone who watched it, in a good way), The Day is straightforward genre fare, with all the jump-scares and blood splatter that implies. The whole plot could fit itno a cut scene in a survival horror game, and would probaby be pretty fun in that context. Too bad its potential as fun popcorn fare is thrown off by a torture sequence mid-film that eats away at any sympathy for the protagonists.

Sometimes one scene can completely change your view of a film. For the most part, William Friedkin’s Killer Joe is a tawdry but entertaining crime flick about a trailer-park twenty-something who recruits his dad to help him hire a hit-man to take out his mom for the insurance money. The cast revels in the skuzzy setting, and everyone from Thomas Haden Church as the lunk-headed father to a surprisingly friendly (though not particularly merciful) loan shark — and even Matthew McConaughey’s calways-calm hitman, for the most part — all seem committed to keeping the tone lighter than the subject matter would suggest. Then, after a third-act twist, things change from tasteless to downright hateful in a stomach-churning sequence where a character brutalizes a suspected betrayor. Suddenly, what seemed cheerfully crude earlier looks uncomfortably sexist in retrospect, and even a particularly ballsy ending can’t make up for the shift in tone.

After two films where women suffered horrible beatings, a comedy about the invention of the vibrator seemed like exactly the right sort of innocuous ending to the day. And that’s about the right word for Hysteria, which is probably the most non-threatening movie ever to focus on finger-banging and sex toys. Despite a raunchy premise, Hysteria is darned near family friendly, and quite traditional in its pursuit of rom-com formula. There are a few things that elevate it: Rupert Everett is a delight as a brash, wealthy electricity afficianado; Maggie Gyllenhall is perfectly winning as an early feminist and advocate of social welfare for the lower classes. The only trouble is that it never quite hits the manic pitch promised by the trailer — it’s a date-friendly film with a touch of tittilation, a bit of politicizing and a few period-based laughs, but it never moves beyond “pleasant.”

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