Saturday, February 02, 2013

Sundance ’13: Houston

H-Town is way different from the Ewings’ Dallas, but there is still a lot of energy money there.  That is indirectly why German corporate headhunter Clemens Trunschka is visiting.  He is supposed to make a confidential offer on behalf of a client to a prominent Texas petroleum CEO without alerting his current firm.  This turns out to be easier said than done in Bastian Günther’s Houston (clip here), which screened as part of the World Dramatic Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Trunschka drinks too much, straining his relationship with his wife Christine.  Perhaps sensing trouble at home, his son has been acting out at school.  It is a problem his father is not inclined to face.  In a way, the assignment to recruit Steve Ringer comes at an opportune time, getting Trunschka out of the house for a while.  After missing Ringer at an exclusive European energy conference, Trunschka must follow him to H-Town.  However, the combination of jet lag, liquor, and the blinding Texas sun seem to have a disorienting effect on the headhunter.

Since Ringer’s gatekeepers keep him locked up tighter than Rapunzel, Trunschka will have to get creative to reach him.  The pressure is mounting, which has a further destabilizing effect on the German.  However, a fellow guest in his hotel seems eager to help.  Robert Wagner, the actor’s namesake as he is quick to point out, seems to be the perfect caricature of the loud backslapping American.  In fact, he is clearly supposed to make viewers suspicious—about Trunschka.

While there is plenty to make viewers wonder about the firmness of the German protagonist’s grip on things, Günther’s approach is tightly restrained, dry even.  Trunschka’s dark night of the soul is all about brooding rather than knock-down drag-out binge drama.  Ulrich Tukur, best known for The Lives of Others and John Rabe is perfectly suited for the tightly wound, quietly cracking-up Trunschka.  He can do a slow burn better than just about anyone.  Likewise, Garret Dillahunt nicely hints at an unsettling undercurrent beneath Wagner’s aggressively good humor.

Cinematographer Michael Kotschi makes the most of Houston’s dazzling sunlight and the reflections off its glass and steel towers, creating a real sense of an urban wonderland.  While strikingly composed, the entire film is too fixated on shiny surfaces, never really getting to the characters root cores.  Nonetheless, some commentators will surely embrace the film as another critique of the capitalist system, even though it depicts a rather singular crisis—a self-destructive alcoholic’s inability to convey a lucrative job offer to a highly successful executive.

Houston looks great, but mostly offers empty calories, despite the quality of Tukur’s work.  Still, it might be interesting to some East and West Coasters as a window into Europe’s perspective on the Texas state of reality.  As a result, Houston is likely to get further festival play, particularly given the two well known German and American principle cast-members, following its world premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.