With more acquisitions (39 at press time) and higher-caliber films than in recent years, Sundance 2011 was in many respects the most lucrative—and satisfying—edition in ages. It goes without saying that with any festival experience personal enjoyment is greatly dependent on the luck of the draw, but this year the odds favored an abundance of the Sundance sensibility of yore: limited means plus actual innovation—albeit in films of a significantly darker variety.

Nevertheless, there was a spike of optimism about indie cinema’s future, accompanied by the customary crop of It girls and boys—and this time, the attention was fully warranted. Leading the pack were a pair of newcomers, Elizabeth Olsen and Brit Marling, and one old hand, Rutger Hauer, appearing in two notable films apiece. 

Hobo with a Shotgun

The Hauer double serving couldn’t have been more contrasting: he plays a homeless vigilante in one, and master Renaissance artist Bruegel in the other. At the lower end of the moral scale, Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun follows Machete to become the second Grindhouse trailer extended to feature length. Showy (presented in glorious Technicolor), deliciously lewd, and twisted as hell, it stopped at nothing for a shock—which will come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen Eisener’s Sundance 2009 short Treevenge. But there’s heart beneath the splatter, as Hauer’s hobo is a deeply human, tragic figure who’d rather mind his own business and dream of starting a lawn-mowing business. But he finds himself passing through a city overrun with vermin and ruled by the gnarliest of them all: a psychopathic gangster and his two despicable sons. Reluctantly, he takes matters into his own hands, “delivering justice one shell at a time” as the poster’s tagline proclaims.

At other end of the spectrum was The Mill & the Cross, a meticulously crafted experiment (part of the New Frontier section championing boundary-pushing work) in which Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski invites viewers to step inside (and behind the scenes of) Bruegel’s 1564 painting The Procession to Cavalry. It doesn’t quite live up to its lofty ambitions, but was still visually arresting enough to hold audiences captive for an inopportune midnight showing (a slot Hobo was tailor-made for).  

Another bona fide late-night outing was the perfectly calibrated minimalist horror flick Silent House, starring Elizabeth Olsen, already a finer actress than her older celebrity twin sisters. Like their 2003 Open Water, Chris Kentis and Laura Lau’s latest quickly establishes and fully exploits the premise of protagonists trapped in dangerous territory, and the never-slackening tension that goes along with it. Here a girl (Olsen) and her father and uncle are packing up their creaky, recently vandalized lake house. The windows are boarded shut, the doors padlocked from the inside (surprise—the keys soon go missing!), and then the place goes dark (exit uncle in search of an electrician). And to top things off, it seems that they aren’t alone. What ensues is breathless—until the infuriating wrap-up that pretty near kills this remake of last year’s Uruguayan film of the same name, both of which purport to have been filmed in a single take. 

Martha Marcy May Marlene

A hasty resolution (and an impossible title) to a much lesser degree impairs Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, an otherwise beautifully measured and stunningly shot film that probes the psyche of a young woman, Martha (Olsen), after she flees a dangerous cult driven more by a hunger for power than faith. She takes shelter in the country home of her sister, a newlywed, whose husband is less patient—or, more accurately, less guilt-ridden about the past—than his wife, but Martha may be so scarred that she’s beyond their help. Interweaving scenes of her precariously tranquil present and tumultuous recent past, the film slowly but surely builds a sense of dread. Durkin won a directing prize for this haunting tale that expands upon his 2010 short <em>Mary Last Seen, and—sorry Pariah—it should have scored the cinematography award as well. 

Brit Marling co-wrote, co-produced, and starred in a pair of thought-provoking no-budget dramas that were enhanced but never bogged down by elements of sci-fi. In Zal Batmanglij’s debut feature, Sound of My Voice, she plays the fragile leader of a secret cult who claims to be from the future. A disbelieving couple, Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), join, intending to make a documentary exposé. But while Lorna remains skeptical throughout, Peter finds himself becoming more and more persuaded—as will viewers. (Marling is the type of girl you can’t help but root for.)

Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, winner of Sundance’s Alfred P. Sloane Award, is also subtly futuristic. The setting is ostensibly the here and now—except that there just happens to be an “Earth 2,” an apparently identical planet that is now more prominent in the sky than the moon. The recent discovery would have been a fitting research subject for the MIT-bound Rhoda (Marling), but after a DUI accident in which she causes the death of a composer’s pregnant wife and young son, she instead ends up in prison for four years. Upon release, she resembles an empty shell, much like John (William Mapother, surprisingly excellent), the man whose entire world she’s destroyed. Resolving to apologize, she shows up at his door one day, but loses her nerve and pretends to work for a housecleaning service offering a free trial. Because John’s life is in utter disarray—he’s quit his job, drinks too much, suffers mood swings of depression and rage, and lives in a dump—it’s plausible when he accepts the offer. Rhoda starts spending week after week tidying up his home, and the two draw gradually closer over time. But of course what she’s done cannot remain secret forever. 

Perfect Sense

Another colossally doomed pairing is at the center of David Mackenzie’s insightful and disquieting Perfect Sense. Self-professed assholes who are terrible at relationships, Michael (Ewan McGregor) and Susan (Eva Green) meet (over a cigarette—how wonderfully old-fashioned) and, to their surprise, begin falling for each other. Too bad for them that the end of the world is near. It’s said that love can make people lose their senses, and here it literally happens—but to everyone. An epidemic is stripping the population of their sensory faculties one at a time, following temporary uncontrollable outbursts of sorrow, anger, etc. (It’s a kind of accelerated but less grimy version of José Saramago’s Blindness.) First to go are smell and taste, particularly problematic because Michael is a chef, followed by hearing, and ending with sight. The film generally keeps clear of the usual apocalyptic scenarios (looting, violent power struggles), favoring a more personal approach: showing people just desperately trying to adapt and maintain daily order amid escalating chaos. 

Scarily, the prospects seem better for the mismatched couple in Paddy Considine’s devastating Tyrannosaur. Hannah (Olivia Colman) is a battered wife, Joseph (Peter Mullan) a formerly abusive husband and ever-belligerent drunk (animal lovers beware: the film begins and ends with his killing a dog). Yet Hannah finds comfort in his presence, and maybe not just because anything’s better than what she’s been living with (Eddie Marsan, now firmly typecast as the vilest of men). The film hardly breaks any new ground; in fact it’s almost customary now for British actor-turned-directors to start out with uncompromising portraits of domestic misery, as evinced by Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, and Mullan himself. But Mullan and Colman’s heartrending performances reinvigorate well-worn material, and they fully deserved their joint special jury acting award. (If not as “Breakout Performances”—Mullan has been commanding the screen for a good 20 years now!) Considine, who also wrote the script, went home a winner as well: he received a directing prize for this hard-hitting debut. 

Less emotionally wearing but more viscerally nasty was Lucky McKee’s The Woman, perhaps the most controversial Midnight offering on hand. Accusations of misogyny immediately circulated, as did reports of incensed, ranting, and/or collapsed audience members. Clearly these people weren’t the target audience for McKee’s latest, a deranged yet savagely funny tale of family dysfunction at its most extreme. Whereas model families adopt abandoned animals, the head of the Cleek clan brings home a wild woman he finds in the woods. Chaining her up in the shed, he intends to “civilize” her, much to the horror of his zombie-like wife (Angela Bettis) and teenage daughter (pregnant, presumably with Dad’s child), but to the delight of his son, who’s just as sadistically inclined. Believe it or not, this is far from your average torture porn.

“Only when we’re afraid, are we truly present,” declares the creepy cult leader played by John Hawkes in Martha Marcy May Marlene. In his case, the idea may serve only to justify the torment he inflicts, but he may be onto something. Aside from helping to clarify why some viewers revel in downbeat and sometimes downright disturbing movies like The Woman, the sentiment also speaks to why many contemporary filmmakers’ own fears and paranoia—about the end of civilization, or indie cinema—increasingly inspire dark, depressing works emphasizing domestic abuse, apocalyptic angst, religious opposition, the after-effects of war, suffering, and death. And by extension, why a festival that was borderline exhausted not long ago suddenly seems so alive. 

© 2011 by The Film Society of Lincoln Center