First: Mississippi Grind, from directing duo and Sundance stalwarts Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, whose Half Nelson launched Ryan Gosling into the stratosphere. Their latest takes a cue from Robert Altman’s great ’70s buddy comedy California Split, and follows two inveterate gamblers—Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn—as they join forces to flee their inner demons on a Huck-and-Jim sojourn down the Mississippi’s seedier gambling haunts. Steeped in a lush blues soundtrack and making excellent use of Mendelsohn’s hangdog visage, Fleck and Boden’s film has a richness of texture, place, and atmosphere that’s too rare in contemporary films. Against the backdrop of forgotten St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans, the two peripatetic hustlers function as a single pair of eyes that allows each to glimpse the fatal flaws in the other. Whether their friendship can give them any control over their fates as they attempt to fill the holes in their lives with the thrill of the tables is the question Fleck and Boden let us ponder throughout the gentle film’s pleasurably languid course—with dashed hopes eternally renewed by every spin of the roulette wheel.
Of course, no Sundance experience would be complete without checking out a couple of the festival’s shorts; after all, The Academy’s Best Picture nominee Whiplash started out as an award-winning short here two years ago. Unfortunately, I missed my bus to the program I had a ticket for, but on the walk home I fatefully met Polish filmmaker Michal Szczesniak who showed me his Starting Point, one of the international selections. Backed by the burgeoning Polish film industry, Starting Point takes a thoughtful look at a female prisoner whose community service helping the elderly forces her to confront her own crime and prepare emotionally for her eventual release back into the real world. Quiet, lucid, and poignant, Starting Point shows fantastic promise, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see an accomplished feature debut from Szczesniak soon. I also saw Pink Grapefruit by Michael Mohan, whose features One Too Many Mornings and Save The Date previously premiered at Sundance. Grapefruit tells a simple story of a couple that plays matchmakers for a melodramatic friend over a weekend in Palm Springs only to realize the stasis of their own relationship. Mohan continues to be an undiscovered gem whose sense for the emotional ebb and flow of my generation is matched only by subtle but powerful aesthetics. He also pays acute attention to his sound mix; never has the emotional power of California desert silence been better conveyed. Hopefully, we’ll see a new feature from Mohan at an upcoming Sundance.
I also made time for one last documentary and sought out Amy Berg’s Prophet’s Prey, a scorching look at the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Likely programmed as a companion piece to Alex Gibney’s Scientology takedown Going Clear, Berg’s film is in some ways the more disturbing one. The FLDS earned infamy as the ultra-fundamentalist branch of the Mormon Church that still practices polygamy and child-marriage. But what sets the FLDS apart from even Scientology’s most disturbing aspects is its leader and Prophet Warren Jeffs, who can most generously be described as a demure psychopath. Implicated in countless acts of rape and child abuse, Jeffs was pursued across the Southwest by the FBI and was finally brought to justice in Texas, but not before hypocritically milking his flock of their earnings to indulge in the very creature comforts the FLDS doctrinally abstains from. Worse, his charismatic grip on the unbending obedience of his church gives him power even from the confines of his cell. Prophet’s Prey avoids flashy filmmaking and concentrates on the simply told story of Jeffs’ pursuit and prosecution; given the sickening potency of their subject matter, it’s a wise strategy. To watch Prophet’s Prey is to be reminded of what a cult really is.
Eventually, the breadth of Sundance’s slate overwhelms me; I abandon all my plans and just give in. I’d flagged Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s The Stanford Prison Experiment about psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s infamous project gone haywire, in which mild-mannered Stanford students played out randomly assigned roles of prisoner and guard to horrifying extremes in 1971. But it was the other famous social psych experiment movie at Sundance, Michael Almereyda’s The Experimenter, that fit my schedule better. The scientist in this case was Yale Professor Stanley Milgram, who, in the 1960s, famously made his subjects administer (fake) electric shocks to a purported fellow subject (an actor in on the ruse) as ostensible punishment in a study on learning. In fact, Milgram was actually testing his subjects’ obedience to authority: would they keep giving larger and larger shocks to the actor who feigned increasing pain just because someone in a lab coat said to? To Milgram’s surprise and the world’s dismay, he found that virtually all his subjects squelched their moral instincts to obey orders. Despite a pseudo-Brechtian strategy of explicit theatricality, Almereyda’s approach proves surprisingly engaging and illuminating. In fact, when Peter Sarsgaard addresses the audience in character as Milgram, you almost feel a deeper intimacy with the scientist’s worldview than if you were watching him from the comfortable remove of a traditional narrative. Sarsgaard’s subdued performance also underlines exactly how Milgram’s disposition made him the perfect person to explore this dark facet of human nature. Even with its staginess, the film evinces a truer feel for the pressures and politics of academic research than a more straight-forward dramatic take on the material—i.e. the “Hollywood” version—ever could. Incidentally, Winona Ryder shines as Milgram’s wife in a role that easily could have devolved into a magician’s-assistant level of anonymity. As offbeat as it is, The Experimenter provides abundant food for thought beyond what a more traditional approach might have yielded.
And with that, my Sundance 2015 came to a close, even though the buzz had reached a frothy peak, and there were so many more movies that I wanted to see than when I first arrived. Maybe it was just my luck of the draw, but it felt like a particularly fruitful year for Redford’s august festival. Sundance has grown bigger than ever—far larger than the infrastructure of Park City can ever hope to contain—so it’s comforting to know that they can (at least for this year) sustain such a quality and diversity of cinema despite the hype, egos, and agendas that jockey for a slice of national attention throughout the weekend. There were many more I wanted to see—Cop Car, Results, and People, Places, Things to name just a few—but it’s in the nature of a moveable feast that you can never sample everything on offer. The consolation is that an appetite unsatisfied leaves you hungry for more next year. Till then!