Upcoming indie films full of doom and gloom

Dark tone could be a factor during awards season

As if the independent film industry hasn't been depressed enough, the fall slate it's offering seems designed to keep suicide hotlines in business.

In the wake of distributor closures (Apparition, Warner Independent, Paramount Vantage), mass layoffs and a public pulled away from the box office by pay-per-view and the Web, the indie world seems caught in a cycle of self-loathing. Despair, self-mutilation, madness, alienation, divorce, child death, Nazi hunting, regret -- for months, the local art house theater will be an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of misery.

Where's this year's "Little Miss Sunshine"? Or "Juno"? Despite its depictions of child abuse, even "Slumdog Millionaire" was a crowd-pleaser. But as Hollywood moves into the fall, it's not just the shorter days that are bringing the darkness.

Although the focus on the dark side could reap rewards come awards season, the downer tone of these movies could present an extra challenge for drawing audiences.

The public hasn't shown much appetite for indie film lately, and watching Natalie Portman peel the skin off the back of her finger in "Black Swan" could make them lose it entirely (in both senses of the phrase). Then there's the sequence in Danny Boyle's "127 Hours" in which James Franco, as trapped mountaineer Aron Ralston, finally frees himself by using an excruciating amount of self-destructive force and a dull knife.

Not all the fall releases include self-mutilation, of course, but they're definitely not the fantastical folderol of summer fare, either. So Fox Searchlight, which is releasing "Hours" (Nov. 5) and "Swan" (Dec. 1), also has Mark Romanek and Alex Garland's "Never Let Me Go," a somber rumination on lost love and truncated lives, opening Wednesday. In October, Goldwyn releases "Welcome to the Rileys," which features an estranged couple mourning the death of their daughter and Kristen Stewart playing a teenage prostitute.

In addition to the more uplifting drama "The King's Speech," the Weinstein Co. preps John Wells' downsizing drama "The Company Men," about several generations of working men consigned to the employment dustbin. That's scheduled for an October release. On Dec. 29, the John Madden-directed drama "The Debt" follows Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds and Tom Wilkinson as they struggle with the repercussions of their pursuit of a war criminal decades before.

Roadside Attractions and Liddell Entertainment will release Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Biutiful" in December so that viewers can watch Javier Bardem struggle with his impending death.

And these are just the movies with set releases.

Dan Rush's adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story "Everything Must Go" features Will Ferrell as a divorced, jobless alcoholic, and James Cameron Mitchell and David Lindsay-Abaire's "Rabbit Hole" features Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart struggling with the death of their son. Dustin Lance Black's "What's Wrong With Virginia" stars Jennifer Connelly as a mentally disturbed woman mucking up the state senate campaign of a sheriff with whom she's long had an affair.

All three are in Toronto seeking a distributor.

Whether these movies resonate with awards voters is another matter entirely. While edgier, darker material once was a hindrance come Oscar time, the past few years have proved that, even if the public is reluctant, the Academy is open to letting a little night in. "The Hurt Locker" and "No Country for Old Men" nabbed the top prop despite swimming through violent, depressing subject matter.

But how dark is too dark? Plainly put: It's difficult to reward a film you can't sit through.

"What I've found is, nothing's too dark if it's a good movie," one veteran awards publicist said. "But it's got to have some kind of mass appeal, even if it's dark. There's dark mainstream, and there's dark obscure."

Without a doubt, this crop of films will be angling for some kind of recognition for its onscreen talent, and although Academy voters tend to reward actors who go to great extremes in their performances, they won't if the performance makes them squirm.

One example: Lars von Trier's "Antichrist" won five Bodil Awards in Denmark and a best actress nod for Charlotte Gainsbourg when it screened at Cannes last year. But there was no way a self-applied clitordectomy was going to, uh, cut it with most of the Academy. So Gainsbourg, who created an indelible portrayal of a woman enduring epic suffering, never made the shortlist.

Even when the actor gets the Oscar attention -- Charlize Theron in "Monster," Naomi Watts and Benecio Del Toro in "21 Grams," Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler" -- the rawness of the film itself, as well as its filmmaker, often gets shoved aside. So despite what many are describing as stunning performances, Franco and Portman and, especially, the challenging films they headline, might not be givens.

On the other hand, the awards-season publicist theorizes that the high median age of the Academy could play in these filmmakers' favor. Many of the older voters were working in the industry during the 1960s and '70s, when maverick filmmaking and risque topics often were rewarded; it was an era in which the X-rated "Midnight Cowboy" was handed three Oscars, including best picture. So voters could be tempted to reward contemporary filmmakers who are turning out similarly edgy, auteur-driven fare.

And in "127 Hours' " defense, "The Departed" featured a severed hand and still won the best picture Oscar in 2006. It also grossed $289 million worldwide.
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