Sundance Dispatch: For the Sickos

To some extent, all independent film festivals cater to sickos. Indie film is generally where you’ll find the bravest directors taking the biggest swings at the weirdest ideas. The Sundance lineup always has plenty of mainstream appeal, too, but every year there are a handful of films that, to one degree or another, make you say, “YES… HA HA HA… YES!” Here are five of them.

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Infinity Pool arrives just in time to ride the wave of stories like Triangle of Sadness, The Menu, Glass Onion, and HBO’s White Lotus, where the fecklessness of rich people is a running theme. It’s set at a White Lotus-type resort in the fictional tropical country of La Tolqa, where the justice system is extremely harsh unless you are wealthy (surely this could only be true in a fictional country). That it was written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg, son of David and a gleefully twisted chip off the old block, lets you know that you’re in for a gloriously messed-up time. I bet even his dad watches this and says, “Geez, kid, is everything OK at home?” 

Among the guests at this resort are failing novelist James Foster (Alexander Skarsgard) and his rich wife/patron, Em (Cleopatra Coleman). James is surprised when another guest, the uninhibited Gabi (Mia Goth), recognizes him and gushes about how much she loved his book. She and her husband, Alban (Jalil Lespert), invite the Fosters on a jaunt outside the resort compound, where an accident occurs and a local man is killed. The person responsible for this, even if it was inadvertent, can be executed. But if you’ve got the money, you can pay the La Tolqa government to make a clone of you—complete with your memories and consciousness of guilt—and have that person put to death in your stead. 

There are endless tantalizing possibilities with this premise, and Cronenberg goes with a lot of funny ones. This isn’t saying much if you’ve seen Antiviral and Possessor, but Infinity Pool is easily B-Cronez’ most laugh-out-loud movie (if you don’t mind your chuckles rough). For after a lawbreaking tourist gets over the horror of seeing their own clone executed, that tourist may realize that there are essentially no consequences for wrongdoing here. Maybe a tourist will even develop a perverse fascination with seeing themselves murdered. A lot of bad but highly entertaining things can happen when you’re bored and rich and nothing you do matters, as James learns when his new friends introduce him to their group of likeminded hedonists for nights of drug-fueled debauchery and entanglements with the local penal system. 

The film is graphically violent and sexually explicit (not at the same time, fortunately), covering most of the main taboos. And all respect to Alexander Skarsgard for his full commitment to Cronenberg’s insane satiric vision, but the MVP is Mia Goth as the charmingly unhinged Gabi. Every scene she’s in makes an already wild movie just a little more dangerous. Grade: B+

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There are a lot of ways you could go with the premise of Fair Play, too. Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) are stock analysts at the same ruthless Wall Street financial firm, where they must hide the fact that they are dating. Then Emily gets the promotion Luke was expecting—and is now his boss. 

The disastrous potential of that scenario could be fodder for a light rom-com, a searing psychological drama, or anything in between. Writer-director Chloe Domont has made a darkly satiric and rather chilling comedy about ambition, greed, and love, all with a twisted undercurrent. For example, when Luke proposes to Emily, they are in a public bathroom and both smeared with blood, and I’m omitting the most notable detail (where the blood came from). And that’s the first scene. “Light rom-com” is off the table. 

Most of the blood drawn here is metaphorical, though, as Luke lets the change in status (and income) between himself and Emily curdle their relationship. He tries to be cool with it at first—Alden Ehrenreich, erstwhile young Han Solo, is good at playing a guy who’s a Good Guy—but he soon succumbs to jealousy and his own sweaty desperation to succeed. For her part, Emily thrives in the new position but is taken aback to learn that the top boss, a vicious S.O.B. named Campbell (Eddie Marsan) who tells you how many seconds you have to speak before he lets you say what you came in here for, wants to fire Luke. 

There’s a whole TV season’s worth of potential farce and tragedy here. The fun of Fair Play is watching it unfold and being surprised (or not) at the directions it chooses to go. Phoebe Dynevor (from Netflix’s Bridgerton) emerges as a powerhouse, taking Emily from a somewhat timid junior analyst to a ladder-climbing ball-breaker without missing a step. It seems at first that Luke is the more ambitious one (you will absolutely die when you see his most embarrassing moment), but it’s hilarious and breathtaking—and, yes, a little alarming—to see Emily be seduced too. Grade: B+

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The potential toxicity of boundless ambition is also a theme in Magazine Dreams, which boasts a career-making lead performance by Jonathan Majors but is only so-so otherwise. Majors plays Killian Maddox, an amateur bodybuilder who aspires to fame. He has the body for it (you might make an “ah-ooga!” sound when you see what an understatement that is), but he’s socially awkward and self-doubting. A competition judge once told him his deltoids were too small, and he never got over it. He tenderly cares for his ailing grandfather. When he posts nervous, stammering workout videos on YouTube, commenters tell him to kill himself. He seems like a sweet, earnest young man—except that he also uses steroids, has ferocious anger issues, and writes letters to his bodybuilding idol that are worryingly similar to the ones Stan wrote to Eminem. 

Writer-director Elijah Bynum (Hot Summer Nights) wants us to wonder: When is Killian going to snap? He’s like Travis Bickle, if Travis Bickle could tear you in half. His ideas of what women like to do on a date are better than those of the Taxi Driver protagonist, but he still botches it by being too intense and hyper-focused. Whiplash comes to mind, too, particularly in an intense sequence where Killian goes to a competition straight from being beaten up and oils up his bloody body before taking the stage. 

Majors is fantastic at earning both sympathy and disdain, playing a troubled man whose troubles aren’t entirely his own making (though some are). When Killian says, “There are thoughts in my head I have no one to talk to about,” and then meets someone who can help him, and that person takes advantage of him instead—can you blame him for being lost after that? As his Google searches go from “How can I get people to like me?” to “How can I get people to remember me?” you feel the ominous rumblings.

But the movie pulls its punches in the end, resolving in a way that I think contradicts what it was leading up to. That issue aside (which might be a matter of taste), there’s definitely a turning point in the story where the film ought to be in the home stretch—yet there’s more than 30 minutes left in the runtime. The movie starts repeating points it’s already made. And if there’s one thing I know about bodybuilding, it’s that you gotta keep things tight. Grade: C+

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Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The 24-year-old title character in Eileen (played by Thomasin McKenzie) has much simpler ambitions: She just wants something. Living in LBJ-era Massachusetts with her drunk ex-cop father (Shea Whigham), she works as a secretary in a boys’ prison and has nothing else in her life. For fun, she peeps on couples in lovers’ lane. 

Into her life swings Dr. Rebecca Saint John (Anne Hathaway, in full Theater Girl mode), the prison’s new platinum-blonde psychologist. Worldly, glamorous, and mysterious, with a sassy Massachusetts accent not found in naychuh, Rebecca takes a shine to Eileen, who’s thrilled to have an exciting new friend. Like the femme fatale in a film noir, Rebecca says things like, “Smoking is a nasty habit. That’s why I like it.” Eileen is smitten. 

And then what? I’m not tellin’. There’s a teenage boy in the prison (Sam Nivola) who killed his father and now refuses to speak to his mother (Marin Ireland). Dr. Rebecca has her work cut out for her. How these elements tie together will be a treat for you to discover. 

Directed by William Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth) and based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2015 novel, Eileen is instantly fascinating and never stops being intriguing. Eileen herself is a peculiar, idiosyncratic character, enough to build a movie around without even needing a partner in crime; the arrival of the enigmatic Rebecca is just icing on the cake. The setting and circumstances have a Carol vibe, but this story of a young woman finding herself goes much darker places. Grade: B+

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Rotting in the Sun is another one where I don’t want to tell you the plot past a certain point (even the Sundance blurb goes too far, I think) because it’s so much more fun to be surprised. The seventh film by Chilean writer-director Sebastián Silva to play at Sundance, this is an all-out comedy, albeit another dark one, in which Silva plays what one hopes is a fictionalized version of himself. The cinematic Sebastián is living in Mexico City, depressed, doing ketamine, reading The Trouble with Being Born, and googling suicide methods. That’s after he googles himself and then has to add “director” because there’s a young actor named Sebastián Silva who’s more famous. 

At a friend’s suggestion, Sebastián goes to a gay beach resort to relax and recuperate. There he meets one thousand penises (it is a nude beach), one of them belonging to Jordan Firstman, a real-life American Instagram influencer who is playing (again, one hopes) a fictionalized version of himself. Jordan is shallow and unfunny, the epitome of a vain social-media parasite with a million followers. “Come meet my friends!” he brays to Sebastián. “You’re gonna hate them!” 

Jordan pitches Sebastián on a dumb idea he has for a TV show, which Sebastián wants nothing to do with. But back home in Mexico City, his career floundering and HBO execs not biting on his own pitches, Sebastián desperately agrees to partner with Jordan for his dumb show. 

The only other thing you need to know is that Sebastián lives in a small apartment building owned by his best friend, and that a housekeeper named Veronica (Catalina Saavedra) assists, meddles, and bumbles. Silva finds abundant comedy in his own ennui, in mocking Instagram influencers and shallow gay party culture, and in shocking us with frank casual sex. His own performance is understated, the sane one surrounded by crazy people; tellingly, he’s one of the few men on the beach to keep his swim trunks on. Firstman is hilariously grating and phony (I really hope this isn’t his true personality), and Catalina Saavedra—who played the lead in Silva’s first Sundance movie, The Maid—is painfully funny as the hapless Vero. Poor Vero! Poor everyone, really, except us, laughing from a safe distance. Grade: B

Check out our coverage of this year’s Sundance documentaries here.

Eric D. Snider has been a film critic since 1999, first for newspapers (when those were a thing) and then for the internet. He was born and raised in Southern California, lived in Utah in his 20s, then Portland, now Utah again. He is glad to meet you, probably.

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