Saturday, March 23, 2019

What The!? ’19: To the Night

Even tortured-soul Brooklyn artists have to buy groceries and pay rent on their Taj Mahal-sized lofts, but apparently not Norman. He has the luxury of focusing on his own destructive excesses. We hardly ever see him creating his self-absorbed installations, so being a father to his baby boy Caleb is obviously a non-starter. Norman’s anguished ego takes precedence over everything else in Peter Brunner’s To the Night, which screens during this year’s What The Fest!?.

Decades after his parents died in a house fire (more like a mansion fire), Norman is still emotionally hobbled by the childhood trauma. Strangely, he doesn’t really seem to grieve for them, per se. Instead, it is all about him. Nevertheless, he remains perversely obsessed with fire. The tragedy has deeply shaped his work, but without any resulting cathartic effect.

Unfortunately, this means Norman continues to binge on drugs and lash out physically, largely without consequences. His girlfriend Penelope problematically endures his periodic violence, presumably because she believes Caleb needs a father, but Norman could even be a danger to him too. So, yeah, fun stuff.

Frankly, To the Night has very little genre elements, making it a dubious selection for What The. Clearly, Brunner wants to show us the world through Norman’s warped perspective, but instead of psychedelic Mad Hatter crazy, he is drunk-stoned-angry-self-loathing demented, which is a darker and drearier proposition altogether.

That said, enormous credit must be granted to Caleb Landry Jones for his scary ferocious commitment playing Norman. He is so harrowingly convincing portraying all his rage benders, strung-out brooding, and mental collapses, he runs the risk of forever alienating everyone who has this film burnt onto their corneas. Likewise, Eleonore Hendricks looks believably and distressingly terrified most of the time.

After about twenty minutes, viewers will start to wonder why does this film exist (some of the blame can go to auteur Ulrich Seidl, whose imprimatur and production company no doubt opened many doors), but after another twenty minutes they will just be wondering when it will all end. No doubt an audience exists for a tonally grim, aesthetically severe film like this, but there is probably a narrow sliver of a Venn diagram overlap with the patronage of fantastical film fests. For most of us mere mortals, life is too short for the combination of Brooklyn grime and Euro pretension, when To the Night screens tonight (3/23), during What The Fest!?