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SXSW 2011: Green, Bellflower, and Kill List

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SXSW 2011: <em>Green</em>, <em>Bellflower</em>, and <em>Kill List</em>

Brooklyn-based filmmaker Sophia Takal won a Chicken & Egg Emergent Narrative Woman Director Award on Tuesday night here at South by Southwest, and, for the most part, her debut feature Green bears out that honor. Its characterization of the madness that begins to slowly engulf city-bred Genevieve (Kate Lyn Sheil) in the countryside is rather sketchy, and its depiction of the sexual jealousy she begins to develop toward earnest country girl Robin (Takal herself) doesn’t go far beyond Eyes Wide Shut lite; still, the film packs a wallop, with a pungently atmospheric score by Ernesto Carcamo and some unnervingly prolonged long takes (Nandan Rao was the cinematographer) that offers an unsettling counterpoint to the beautiful scenery and naturalistic performances. Even if Green doesn’t entirely add up to as full a portrait of sexual neurosis and culture clash as Takal intends, the film is still an impressive achievement, and contains enough skill and vision to suggest possible triumphs ahead.

Bellflower, the debut feature of Evan Glodell, is impressive too, but in far different, more unexpected—hell, more stunningly insane—ways. A mere plot summary clues you in on how defiantly weird this film is, centering as it does around two friends, Woodrow (Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson), who have taken it upon themselves to invent a flamethrower car in the hopes that, when a supposed apocalypse comes, they can create an imaginary gang called “Mother Medusa” and basically emulate their childhood hero, Mad Max. None of that is a joke, folks. Their plans, however, are interrupted by romance and heartbreak: Woodrow falls in love with the effervescent and impulsive Milly (Jessie Wiseman), but when their relationship eventually begins to fall apart…

To say more would be to spoil the effect of discovering and savoring the film’s twists and turns for yourself. (I’ll just say this: Like Green, this becomes a narrative about madness.) But the sheer intoxicating originality of Bellflower doesn’t just lie in its plotting. The look of the film is striking in how it manages to be both surreally beautiful and palpably gritty; the colors often look deliberately over-processed, while Glodell is unafraid of leaving in all sorts of dirt and grime on the camera lens, or to leave large portions of his widescreen frames distractingly out of focus (Joel Hodge did the cinematography for this one). The result is a film that looks messy and chaotic in eventually disturbing ways.

Glodell breaks all sorts of rules in Bellflower, but he isn’t doing it just to show off; it’s part and parcel of a vision that eventually seems to equate heartbreak with the end of the world. For characters as sheltered and pop culture-obsessed as Woodrow and Aiden are, such bumps in the road of life have the force of apocalypses, at least in their own minds.

The film is scheduled for theatrical release by Oscilloscope Laboratories this summer; the distribution company picked it up earlier this year at Sundance. I already can’t wait to see it again and bask in its vigorous oddball glow.

There is more madness on display in Kill List, British director Ben Wheatley’s second feature (after his 2009 crime drama Down Terrace), though Wheatley’s approach to the all-too-human horrors on display is far more of a slow burn than Glodell’s more aggressive approach in Bellflower. In fact, for much of the film’s first act, Kill List plays more like a carefully observed character study, with Jay (Neil Maskell)—a shell-shocked ex-soldier-turned-contract killer who returned from a failed job in Kiev eight months ago and hasn’t been himself since—as its main subject. When he finally blows up in front of dinner guests one night, he reluctantly decides, upon pressure from his friend and fellow ex-soldier Gal (Michael Smiley), to return to contract killing, to help pay the bills around the house. As he does, though, in the film’s second act, we witness Jay’s already somewhat tenuous moral compass spiraling out of control in coldly staged scenes of extraordinarily brutal violence and unflinching torture.

None of this sounds like what you’d call standard horror-movie fare, but it’s all a careful buildup toward its third act, which introduces a devil-worshipping cult into the mix. This at first might seem like cheating, save for a couple of weird hints and one scene that suggests a more religious theme underlying it all…but then Kill List builds up to its stunning final shots and the film’s full horror is revealed. Maybe Jay has still been a soldier all this time without his fully realizing it.

Green, Bellflower, and Kill List all played on March 12 as part of this year’s SWSW.