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Greed, torture, immigration, and the death penalty: how 6 new movies explain America

If movies reflect what a culture fears, this year’s TIFF was a hotbed of anxieties.

Adam Driver in The Report and Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.
Adam Driver in The Report and Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.
Courtesy of TIFF

The Toronto International Film Festival obviously isn’t an American film festival. But with so many Hollywood movies and American indies playing in its venues, it can be easy to forget it’s in Canada.

And you can tell a lot about what’s going on in the world by looking at what the movies that surface at TIFF are interested in. In 2019, the unofficial theme of the festival (as it was at Cannes in May) seemed to sit at the intersection of privilege and the mistrust of the powerful. Movies about the CIA’s torture program, embezzlement on local and global scales, the death penalty, and anti-immigrant sentiment were among the festival’s most buzzed-about titles, alongside one particularly prominent entry that, in the end, exposed the emptiest of worldviews.

Here are six movies that played at this year’s TIFF that explain a lot about America in 2019.

The Report

Watching a guy spend five years digging through government documents in a basement should be a royal snoozefest, but The Report manages to make it gripping, due in no small part to its star, Adam Driver. Driver plays Daniel J. Jones, who in 2009 was appointed to lead the Senate investigation into the CIA’s post-9/11 Detention and Interrogation Program, and in particular the agency’s use of “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,” a.k.a torture.

Originally scheduled to spend about a year on the project, Jones discovers that corruption and human rights violations run much deeper than anyone in the Senate suspected. What follows are years’ worth of shocking revelations about both the effectiveness of techniques like waterboarding (spoiler: they’re not effective) and about the many people who peddled half-truths or lies about what was really going on at CIA black ops sites. Additionally, because Jones’s meticulous research — drawn from archives and emails handed over by the CIA — conflicts with many official accounts from several branches of government, the Senate’s plan to release the report to the American public begins to hit snags as it nears completion.

In reality, Jones’s report still hasn’t been released in its entirety, though after two years of political infighting a lengthy executive summary was published in 2014. The Report, written and directed by Scott Z. Burns (who wrote The Informant! and Contagion, as well as another of this year’s TIFF films, The Laundromat), is both infuriating and an excellent introduction to the events that led up to that release, as well as to the failures of the CIA’s torture program, which was suspended during the Obama administration but could certainly be reinstated.

The movie keenly understands, in particular, the public importance of battles over words — the ways they’re used by the powerful to obscure reality and advance agendas. (In the title cards, for example, the full name of the movie is rendered as The Torture Report — and then the word “torture” is crossed out.) The person who wields the power to redact, The Report reminds us, ultimately can alter a whole world’s perception of the truth. And in that case, even the facts don’t really matter.

How to watch it: The Report will open in theaters on November 15, then begin streaming on Amazon Prime Video on November 29.

The Laundromat

Scott Z. Burns was a busy man at TIFF this year; in addition to The Report, he wrote The Laundromat, which his frequent collaborator Steven Soderbergh then directed. The film unspools like a series of interconnected vignettes, all centered on the Panama Papers, a massive trove of leaked documents that surfaced in 2016 and exposed corruption and tax avoidance around the world.

The story is narrated by Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca (played by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas), who act as our guides to the complicated regulatory and economic matters that enabled massively wealthy individuals to avoid paying taxes on their money, often by hiding it in offshore accounts. In real life, Mossack and Fonseca owned the world’s fourth-largest provider of offshore financial services; it closed down in 2018 largely due to the revelations from the Panama Papers, and the pair spent a few months in jail.

The Laundromat aims to show how the web of loopholes in various countries’ tax codes and sleight-of-hand tricks were employed by the rich, and how they affected ordinary people — like a woman (Meryl Streep) who lost her husband in a tour boat accident, then was unable to collect insurance payments because the boat company’s insurance came from a fraudulent shell company. A bevy of stars bring the stories to life, including Streep, Oldman, Banderas, James Cromwell, Sharon Stone, David Schwimmer, Matthias Schoenaerts, Will Forte, Chris Parnell, Jeffrey Wright, Rosalind Chao, Nonso Anozie, and many more.

The Laundromat is unwieldy at times, but it’s worth watching not just for its bitterly entertaining explanation of a densely confusing matter, but also the way it illustrates a larger problem. Most average people don’t just lack the means to avoid taxes; they don’t even know there’s a way that other people do. And yet the confusing, labyrinthine methods that the extremely wealthy can use to conceal their cash has far-reaching repercussions; The Laundromat reveals how.

How to watch it: The Laundromat will open in theaters on September 27, then begin streaming on Netflix on October 18.

Knives Out

One of the most purely entertaining films of the year, Knives Out uses the familiar Agatha Christie-style whodunnit template to tell a twisty murder tale with a bite. It’s a return to form for The Last Jedi’s Rian Johnson, who in movies like Brick (2006) and Looper (2012) played with genre conventions to make something fresh and surprising.

Knives Out concerns the death of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a massively successful and wealthy mystery writer and the patriarch to a family in which nearly everyone seems to have had some reason to want him dead, even if it’s just to get their inheritance. (Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Chris Evans, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, and Riki Lindhome play the various family members.)

One detective (Lakeith Stanfield) is leading the investigation, but another (Daniel Craig) is lurking around in no official capacity, and nobody — not even he, really — knows why. Meanwhile, a young woman named Marta (Ana de Armas), who cared for Harlan, may know more than she wishes.

It’s best to go into Knives Out as unspoiled as possible, since the breakneck pace of the story is what makes it so fun. But the film isn’t just a whodunnit. Agatha Christie’s stories often hinged on class distinctions and played on English fears of foreigners; Knives Out, set in patrician Massachusetts, takes aim at xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, and the clueless privilege of the very rich in a way that’s clearly intended to echo contemporary rhetoric. (One character keeps insisting they’ve built their business from the ground up by themselves, with “just” a loan of millions from Harlan.) It doesn’t have that much to say, as it’s mostly content to land some well-placed blows. But it’s a romping, wicked delight.

How to watch it: Knives Out opens in theaters on November 27.

Just Mercy

The American practice of capital punishment is inextricably linked to much of what’s wrong with our justice system: its focus on punitive rather than restorative measures; its indisputable bias against the poor, mentally ill, and marginalized; its captivity to racial bias.

But despite support for abolishing or at least reforming the death penalty from both progressives and a healthy number of pro-life conservatives, it’s also not something most Americans have to think about. Few people find their own lives touched by the death penalty, and it’s in the best interests of its supporters not to say much about the details in public. Since 1976, for every nine Americans executed by the state, one is exonerated and released from death row — a margin of error that should terrify us all. (And yet, after years of decline, American support for the death penalty ticked up in 2018.)

That’s precisely what Just Mercy, a true story that will set viewers’ sense of injustice ablaze, aims to change. Based on Bryan Stevenson’s bestselling 2014 memoir of the same name, Just Mercy tells the story of Stevenson’s early career as an attorney working to reverse wrongful convictions in Alabama and details the founding of his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative. The film focuses on the case of Walter “Johnny D” McMillian, a poor black man who was arrested in 1987 for the murder of an 18-year-old white girl, and convicted based on testimony that later turned out to be fabricated. After years of legal battles, McMillian’s story became a national case and his convictions were at last reversed in 1993.

Just Mercy isn’t just about the death penalty; it’s also about how old attitudes toward the poor and toward black Americans in particular have played out in the American justice system. Shifting how we think about capital punishment will shift the way we think about what the justice system is supposed to do. (We are, after all, governed by a president who brashly, publicly called for the execution of five teenagers in 1989, and refuses to recant even after their exoneration by DNA evidence, saying their coerced testimonies should still be taken as fact — a rhetorical move that will seem familiar after you see Just Mercy.)

Just Mercy isn’t perfect, but it’s still the sort of film that’s worth watching and absorbing and discussing because the story it tells has not stopped being relevant in the decades since Stevenson and McMillian met. America’s history of injustice has not gotten less dark in recent years. And we cannot willfully blind ourselves when our brothers’ and sisters’ blood continues to cry out from the ground.

How to watch it: Just Mercy opens in theaters on December 25.

Bad Education

Hugh Jackman surrounded by other characters in the film Bad Education.
Hugh Jackman in Bad Education.
Courtesy of HBO

Bad Education was one of the surprise delights of TIFF — a real-life tale of intrigue and larceny in the most drab of locations: a Long Island public school district. Based on a true story from the early aughts and directed by Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds), the film stars Hugh Jackman as Frank Tassone, superintendent of the fourth-best school district in the state of New York. Tassone is beloved by parents, students, faculty, and administrators alike. He’s undeniably devoted to his work and to the many families who depend on the Roslyn school district to provide their children with an excellent education.

One day, however, thanks in part to reporting by a student journalist (Geraldine Viswanathan), the district discovers that the assistant superintendent for business, Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), has been embezzling millions of taxpayer dollars for years. Soon the noose starts to tighten around Frank’s neck, too — and there’s a lot he wants to keep hidden.

That kind of fraud is bad no matter what, but Bad Education expertly traces the effects of pressure placed on administrators and faculty. That college admissions matter so much that parents are willing to commit fraud to get their kids into good schools is no secret in 2019. But it’s not just parents who care; after all, as Frank is reminded repeatedly, good school districts mean higher property values, which in turn leads to a more affluent community. A complex set of factors (along with some good old-fashioned theft) lead to scandals like the one in Bad Education, and it’s unlikely to be the last.

How to watch it: Bad Education is currently awaiting distribution and a release date.

Joker

Joker is far less thoughtful than most of the other films discussed here, but it embodies something endemic about our time and thus feels like the kind of movie only 2019 could have spawned. A standalone origin story for one of the most terrifying archvillains in comics, Joker aims to repaint its subject as a mentally unstable failed comedian toward whom the world is so cruel that he snaps, becoming a force of chaos and a figurehead for an eat-the-rich uprising that’s fomenting in Gotham City.

Joaquin Phoenix stars, brilliantly; his performance anchors a film that is undeniably well made, but Joker is also revealing of the state of big-budget storytelling in Hollywood. It explicitly takes its cues from several older films, most notably Martin Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver and 1983 The King of Comedy. Both of those works feature lonely protagonists who bear striking similarities to the Joker, but also heightened senses of irony and self-awareness that are all but absent here.

Those two earlier films are also far more daring and unnerving than Joker, which resorts to predictable story beats and hackneyed, clichéd proclamations about how the world is going crazy and nobody is civil anymore. It doesn’t offer any solution to those problems other than the Joker’s, which is violence and madness, and it paints all anger against the rich establishment — or whoever people think is against them — as equally legitimate, with presumably the same taste for vengeance as his.

Which is all very ironic, really. Even though its production budget was low compared to other comic book movies (at a mere $55 million), Joker is a commercial product built to sell to an existing fanbase that’s been primed for decades to swallow it and its worldview whole, critical thinking be damned. Like its central character, the film doesn’t believe in anything other than its own right to exist. (It’s interesting to compare Joker to The Report, in which believing in something — in the latter case, human dignity — is a liability and yet worth fighting for.)

So while it’s desperately vying to be seen as revolutionary, there’s little in the Joker that is actually challenging, shocking, or daring. Instead, it’s hollow to its core.

How to watch it: Joker opens in theaters on October 4.