Two solid U.S. competition entries—one a documentary, the other a psychological drama—might be worth putting at the top of your screening list today.
In Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, director John Foy follows the story of how Philadelphia artist/musician Justin Duerr became obsessed with a local curiosity—the appearance of tiles on city streets, all bearing the same cryptic message connecting an obscure historian, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and the dead coming back to life on Jupiter—that turned out to be an international curiosity. For a while, Foy teases with the possibility that the film might be just as much about Duerr and his two primary co-investigators—and perhaps the nature of obsession itself—as it is about figuring out who is placing these tiles, and why. But ultimately, it’s not; it’s simply a genuinely engrossing procedural, in which Duerr and company cleverly gather evidence, follow up leads and ultimately form a hypothesis. While that may not exactly sound like riveting cinema, there’s something satisfying about watching this real-life puzzle put together.
When it comes to Take Shelter, I can’t help wondering if much of what I liked about this complex psychological thriller is what it could have been about, rather than what it actually is about. Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a small-town Ohio man with a wife and daughter who begins having terrifying nightmares about an impending apocalypse. Is it his family history of schizophrenia manifesting itself, or is he tuning into something real? That’s the central character question here, and writer/director Jeff Nichols keeps us on our toes throughout, employing some deeply unsettling compositions and one dream-sequence moment that’s as gasp-inducing for us as it is for Curtis. The question is how much of Take Shelter is, as it often seems, a potent commentary on the free-floating anxiety of current American life, as Nichols’ camera casually lingers on the rolling numbers as Curtis puts gas in his truck, or a news report about a chemical spill. But the more genuinely crazy Curtis seems, rather than affected by the world around him, the farther away the film gets from its most compelling subtext. It still turns into hauntingly serious variation on an old joke: Are you paranoid if everyone really is out to get you?