Not every 25-year-old filmmaker comes out fully formed, as Orson Welles did with Citizen Kane. Xavier Dolan, born in 1989 and already with five features as a director, is less protean in his talent, less wise, less articulate, than wunderkind Welles. But there’s something urgent going on with this French-Canadian director, and youth has a great deal to do with it. The success of his 2014 Cannes prizewinner Mommy has prompted a proper U.S. release for Tom at the Farm, a sinister 2013 film directed by and starring Dolan (from a play by Michel Marc Bouchard). The opening half-hour sets up expectations for a familiar kind of social drama, circa 1998.
Some movies want to wear you down—an approach that seems logical for, say, a World War II tank picture like Fury. It’s not so obvious why Xavier Dolan’s award-winning Mommy seeks the same effect. This 139-minute domestic drama is a tornado of emotional (and sometimes physical) fury, with occasional joys sprinkled throughout. But man, is it a chore to watch. Dolan, a 25-year-old French-Canadian filmmaker, burns through ideas and situations with the urgency of youth, a blazing rush that creates a sometimes-exciting mess.
Much of the film’s fire comes from a teenager, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), who suffers from extreme ADHD and acts out in violent ways. He’s home with his single mother, Diane (Anne Dorval), who can’t handle him—no one could.
Centurion (UK, dir/scr: Neil Marshall) — “My name is Quintus Dias and this is neither the beginning nor the end of my story.” With Michael Fassbender (crisply stalwart in Inglorious Basterds and hauntingly resolute in Hunger) as a loyal and valiant Roman Centurion and Neil Marshall (the once and future hope of savagely smart British genre cinema, thanks to Dog Soldiers and The Descent) writing and directing, I had great expectations for this Romans versus Barbarians warrior epic turned survival thriller. Set on 117 A.D., twenty years into the Roman invasion of Britain, as the guerrilla tactics of the Picts have stymied the Roman incursion into the northern highlands, it’s basically a lost platoon adventure with Fessbender as a bloodied but unbowed soldier trying to lead a small group of survivors from a brutally effective ambush back to safety. In other words, a classic Marshall set-up: a handful of professionals fighting off an attack from greater numbers or overwhelming power. Former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko glowers and slinks as a mute Pict scout and tracker who relentlessly hunts them through the dramatic landscape, looking less like a warrior queen than a 1st century cover girl, and Dominic West is the macho General Virilus (Marshall’s tribute to Life of Brian‘s Biggus Dickus?) who gets to be all tortured martyr as he passes the torch to Quintus: “Get them home!”
Based on a 2,000-year-old legend (according the disclaimer at the end of the film), it’s brawny stuff, part The Naked Prey and part ancient The Lost Patrol, with great use of fog and dramatic landscapes and lots of bloody, brutal combat. Would that it had characters to match, or a story as interesting as its inspiration. Fessbender is all soldier and stalwart dignity—he even says “Fuck” with class (and he does so a lot)—but doesn’t have a personality to speak of, and while the obligatory scene when the men all swap names and backstories may have been Marshall’s tribute to the scores of platoon movies before it, it simply plays as lazy exposition. The men get lost in the muddy palette of earth tones (which in this case are brown, green and fog… lots of fog) and the staccato strobe-vision of battle scenes that simply confuses the action, and the story along with it.