Although it comes towards the end of the international festival season, the London Film Festival continues to go from strength to strength. Among the films I enjoyed the most this year were Wrath of Silence, a Chinese gangster picture-cum-moody modern Western about a mute man searching for his missing son; and Journeyman, Paddy Considine’s thoughtful take on the boxing film genre.
Lean on Pete, adapted from Willy Vlautin’s novel, takes another familiar genre – the US road movie – and does wonderful things with it. A young boy, living with his father in a rundown home and with hardly two dollars to rub together, falls in with Steve Buscemi’s kind but dodgy racehorse owner, before stealing one of the horses and heading off into the sunset without much of a plan.
What unfolds is beautifully shot and wonderfully acted (Charlie Plummer in the central role is just superb). There are moments of danger, defeat and hope beautifully interlaced. It’s directed by the Briton Andrew Haigh, whose previous effort, 45 Years, was another stunning work. He’s clearly someone to keep a close eye on in the coming years.
You Were Never Really Here, another literary adaptation (from the novel by Jonathan Ames), arrived at the festival with plenty of hype thanks to its positive reception at Cannes. This tale of a hired gun – played by a monosyllabic, hammer-wielding Joaquin Phoenix – who gets paid to rescue young girls from sex traffickers is daring and unflinching in the horror it portrays. Director Lynne Ramsay (another brilliant Brit) brings an intense and claustrophobic atmosphere to proceedings, with the help of a buzzing, lurching score provided by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. It’s a fever dream that will thrill and alienate in equal measures when it is released next year.
Light relief of a very idiosyncratic kind was provided by my favourite film of the festival, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, from playwright and film-maker Martin McDonagh (of In Bruges fame). In the small town of the title, Woody Harrelson’s sheriff finds himself faced with a major headache. Two, actually. Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), the mother of a young girl who was brutally murdered, has paid for three huge billboard adverts calling out his failure to bring the killer to justice. He’s got terminal cancer, too.
In another director’s hands this wouldn’t be anything close to comic material, but McDonagh, with the help of his crack cast (particularly the poker-faced McDormand and Sam Rockwell as a volatile cop), creates a black comedy that crackles with sharp jokes, eye-watering profanity (including one tirade against a Catholic priest) and moments of both shocking violence and genuine tenderness. Three Billboards was screened at the closing gala and brought this year’s festival to end with a resounding and exhilarating bang.
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