Sundance Round-up: Hellion, The Sleepwalker, The Raid 2

Hellion (Kat Candler, 2014)

While watching and contemplating Hellion, I found myself drawing lines of comparison to Mud  and Wadjda, two highlights from 2013. Mud  came to mind as both films are kids-and-outlaws stories set in the American South (this time in Texas), though in this film the kid and outlaw are one and the same, as 13-year-old Jacob (Josh Wiggins) finds himself on the brink of going to juvie upon becoming a property-destroying hellraiser with a crew of kids after the death of his mom. Wadjda  comes to mind more for plot structure, as both it and Hellion  heavily revolve around their protagonists hoping to acheive a goal by winning prize money in a contest – here, it’s a motor-bike competition, and Jacob is hoping the prize money will help get his younger brother back after child services take him away and put him in his aunt’s (Juliette Lewis) custody.

Unfortunately, despite the resemblance, Hellion  never reaches the heights of those two films. This is mainly because, while those films had strong narrative momentum, Hellion  has a hard time picking up any. Though it’s the storyline with the highest stakes, the motor-bike competition comes and goes as a narrative, and the parallel plot of Jacob’s dad (Aaron Paul) trying to get his act together so he can reclaim his son is similarly stilted. Not until the third act do things begin to happen, but it’s such a jarring turn from the rest of the film that you’re wondering how it’s supposed to go together. Still, Paul and Wiggins manage to sell everything the film gives them, and Candler has a keen visual eye, effectively using handheld camerawork that fits the material while still composing some striking shots, including the film’s final shot, which is so haunting it almost makes you forgive the ridiculousness surrounding it.

The Sleepwalker (Mona Fastvold, 2014)

Given the small set of characters (only four major roles), the single setting (with an occasional detour) and its storyline powered by unseen events from the characters’ past, one could easily see The Sleepwalker  being the film adaptation of some contemporary, semi-popular Off-Broadway play. Set in rural Massachusetts, the film centers on Kaia (Gitte Witt), who is renovating the house of her recently deceased father with the help of her boyfriend Andrew (Christopher Abbott). Without warning Kaia’s possibly unstable sister Christine (Stephanie Ellis) shows up 14 weeks pregnant (according to her, anyway…), followed shortly by her fiance Ira (Brady Corbet, also the film’s co-writer). From there situations arise involving long-kept secrets, flirtations between the couples, and Christine’s mysterious sleepwalking which may or may not hold the key to the icy relations between the two sisters.

The material is juicy enough to be entertaining on its own, and the actors service the material very well (particularly Witt and Ellis), but the filmmaking helps make what could’ve felt stagey into something even more engaging. The best example of this is a dinner scene from the first night all four characters are together, where instead of opting for the standard cross-cutting, Fastvold decides to focus on each character individually for extended periods of time, allowing us to not only see them say their lines, but also take in their extended reactions to the rest of the conversation. The score by Sondre Lerche and Kato Ådland also elevates the material, bringing to mind the nightmarish strings of Jonny Greenwood while still being its own thing. And the setting where most of the events take place, an older, modern-looking house (my apologies, I’m not an architecture expert) is one of the more striking movie houses in recent memory, and really drips with eerie, melodramatic atmosphere.

The Raid 2 (Gareth Evans, 2014)

Though I wasn’t a big fan of the The Raid: Redemption, I did appreciate the modesty of its plot in relation to its lack of modesty in everything else. Our protagonist is quickly established, we get an effective exposition dump explaining what the raid is and why, and from there it gets down to nearly nonstop bone-crushing violence. I wasn’t a big fan of the action with a couple of exceptions, but I appreciated how straightforward it was. Gareth Evans’s follow-up, The Raid 2, decides to hell with that modesty in plot and becomes a full-fledged crime saga, with warring crime factions, family conflicts within those factions, and an undercover cop (Iko Uwais, reprising his role from the original) sent in to bring it all down. Despite these aspirations though, the film never fully grows into its new-found ambition, and the plot ends up not much more interesting than the first film’s, if much more convoluted (this film clocks in at 148 minutes, nearly 50 minutes longer than the original).

However, if there’s a bonus to having a surplus of plot this time around, it’s that it gives the viewers time to recover from the brutal, unrepentant action sequences throughout the film. I should note that that’s a compliment: the action here is at least five times more brutal than the original (I imagine that the cut I saw will push the limits of the MPAA’s violence tolerance), but it’s also at least ten times more fun, and as a result I’d ultimately consider the film an improvement on the original. There’s a prison riot to end all movie prison riots (with at least a couple of awe-inspiring single takes of nonstop ass-whomping), a car chase that puts all Hollywood car chases from the last five years to shame, and at least half-a-dozen fight scenes that had the Eccles Theatre audience wincing and applauding in almost equal measure. If you found the original film too much you’d better steer clear of this, but if you were a fan, you’re in for something very special.