Over the past years the team of filmmakers Dan Montgomery and Kazik Radwanski – otherwise known as MDFF – have brought to Toronto a plethora of sold out screenings of films that have somehow managed to skip the city altogether despite going on to greater acclaim elsewhere. These screenings in recent months have always resulted in people being turned away at the door. They have since teamed up with local film lovers and broadcasters The Seventh Art to bring these screenings to another level and a bigger venue; now holding screenings at Camera at 1026 Queen Street West. The film they have chosen to make the leap with might be their best choice yet.
One of the best Aussie dramas of the century thus far, Amiel Courton-Wilson’s Hail (screening Wednesday, April 16th at 8:00pm with advance tickets available here and with Wilson in attendance)is a positively flooring piece of work. A purposefully uneasy and gorgeous looking and sounding story of one man trying to adjust to life outside of prison, it’s as emotionally charged and lyrical as a love poem and as raw as the coldest of winter evenings.
Tatted up and past his prime tough bloke Danny (Daniel P. Jones, who has one of the most expressive faces I’ve ever seen) has been in and out of the nick for most of the 50 years he’s lived. He’s recently been released once again to return home to his girlfriend (Jones’ real life partner Leanne Letch) and is looking to finally get his life back in order and go legit. Terrified with the uncertainty of starting over and bearing no really hireable skills for today’s marketplace, Danny is faced with a series of frustrations and setbacks that eventually lead to him falling off the straight path and finally to a point that’s possibly worse than he has ever reached before.
The result of a multi-year collaboration between Wilson and Jones, Hail debuted in Venice in 2011, but it should have been available here much sooner. This is a powerful and emotionally draining film that establishes Wilson as a masterful stylist and humanist. The composition, pacing, storytelling, and performances here are all exquisite, balancing sometimes bracing and violent flashes with calming moments of true clarity that are hard to fake. Wilson and his cinematographer Germain McMicking both come from rich backgrounds in documentary and they put their well honed eye for great visuals to good use in a film that feels at times uncomfortably like the real deal. This is the kind of film Nicholas Winding Refn could learn some new tricks from in terms of creating stylish character pieces about criminals.
Using both smoothly moving long takes and a wonderful understanding of how montage is supposed to function in a character driven drama, Wilson not only doesn’t pull punches in a visual sense, but he’s hitting with a flurry of lefts and rights like a champion prize fighter. Whether he’s photographing Jones alone in a field with an expansive land below and sky above or chronicling even the most seemingly inconsequential bumps in his eventual and probably sadly inevitable downward spiral, Wilson has tapped into a hard feeling to approximate on screen: how to feel alone in the world even when surrounded by people who care. While Danny never comes out and says that he’s alone, he clearly doesn’t know what to do with himself or how to behave. When he finally realizes he was never alone and that he had love in his life, his all too late realization thrusts the film headlong into a mostly austere final act that’s punctuated by moments of true suspense and terror that are driven by pure emotion instead of the filmmaker’s actually need for an artistic catharsis.
Visually and aurally this film is a stunner. Loud and uncomfortably close Wilson is creating a wide world with only a few characters from which there is no escape. Utilizing perfect sound cues and a soundtrack that contains elements of post-rock, jazz, classical, a capella gospel, slot machine sound effects, and the titular pitter-patter of icy precipitation of rooftops, the experience is all encompassing.
Two thirds of the way into the film there’s a shocking twist. The audience pretty much knows that a twist is coming and something is going to force a severe reckoning upon Danny whether he likes it or not. It’s not the twist that anyone could really anticipate. It changes the tone and complexity of the film in every way without betraying everything it worked so hard to set up. It becomes more of a direct film that deals with crime head on, but in the strangest and most welcome twist of all, Wilson has already made the consequences known in advance. It has enough emotional resonance in that final third to provide energy to a power plant. It’s the perfect metaphorical definition of something that’s electrifying.