The image of Sandra Bullock floating helplessly adrift in Alfonso Cuarón’s mesmerizing lost-in-space saga Gravity doesn’t loom above the Toronto International Film Festival just because it’s probably the most expensive big-studio release at this year’s event, or even because it begs to be seen on the biggest Imax 3-D screen possible.
No. It’s because it stands firmly grounded in one of the most persistent visions on display this year: humanity adrift. From all corners of the Earth as well as above and beyond it, filmmakers are offering spectacles of people disengaged and desperately untethered from terra firma. It’s the year of the stranded.
In Australian filmmaker Aaron Wilson’s Canopy, a young pilot (Khan Chittenden), shot down over the Japanese-infested jungles of Singapore, must find his way to safety in the heart of nature’s darkness. It’s Gravity minimalized, miniaturized, and on the ground. In the Norwegian conspiracy thriller Pioneer, the realm of exile is way below sea level: A professional diver (Aksel Hennie) returns to the surface only to realize that the death of his brother on the ocean floor might have been caused by corporate oil interests that would like to put him under, too, once and for all.
Some films stress dislocation of a more familial variety. In David Gordon Green’s Joe, a homeless boy (Tye Sheridan) seeks both work and purpose in the employ of Nicolas Cage’s dangerously unstable ex-con. In David Mackenzie’s electrifying British drama Starred Up, a prematurely upgraded teenage violent offender (Jack O’Connell) can survive in the adult prison population only by proving more vicious than his mates, including a lifer in the person of his estranged father.
History and politics are also black holes right now. In Swiss director Thomas Imbach’s Mary Queen of Scots, the young royal (Camille Rutherford) struggles to rule a country that doesn’t want her, that she doesn’t understand, and that exiles her to France at such a young age she is rendered a permanent outsider in her own kingdom. In the Mexican documentary The Mayor, an affluent community is made at least tentatively safe from drug-related violence by sealing itself off not only from the rest of the nation but from due legal process. It’s an island surrounded by blood.
As Dostoevsky observed – and Starred Up reiterates – crime and punishment can make for a perfect storm of alienation. Atom Egoyan’s The Devil’s Knot retells the story of the West Memphis Three not merely as a courtroom drama but as a portrait of a community so gripped by fear and outrage over the murder of three boys that everything designed to hold people together – religion, family, the justice system – unravels. When a mysterious child murder occurs in the Australian outback of Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road, its solution is left to an Aboriginal cop (Aaron Pedersen) untrusted and unwanted by everyone – a kind of outcast seeker of justice, in a frontier beyond its reach.
More often than not, however, the medium of dislocation is purely psychic, the hole in which the soul floats when it loses its moorings. In Jim Jarmusch’s melancholy vampire love story Only Lovers Left Alive, a centuries-old pair of hipster blood drinkers (Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston) live in a state of permanent hermetic isolation, emerging only at night, wearing white gloves and sunglasses. Meanwhile, as the hard-core dark-metal masters play a concert that almost brings the house down, Nimród Antal’s Metallica: Through the Never tells the story of a roadie (Dane DeHaan) sent out into the night only to encounter a world on the brink of apocalypse.
I could also cite the martial-arts master (Tiger Chen) in Keanu Reeves’s Man of Tai Chi, a figure lured into a sinister underworld only to have his soul nearly taken from him; or the brutal alcoholic cop (David Morse) whose name provides the title of Josh C. Waller’s McCanick, a man so driven to track down a just-released junkie that he forsakes all legal and moral constraints. The middle-aged writing teacher (Mathieu Amalric) at the centre of the Swiss-French co-production Love is the Perfect Crime appears to be a victim of erotic delusion, unsure if he himself isn’t the killer of one of his young student conquests. Not even light comedy is immune to the global existential crisis, as evidenced by the dark disclosures surrounding an otherwise eccentric stoner dude played by Zack Galifianakis in You Are Here.
We’re drawn to movies in part for the interpretive reflection they provide. In 2013, it is a reflection of a world in which a sense of gravity is a rare thing, and in which you don’t have to be floating above the Earth’s atmosphere to feel its absence.