Bullets, Vampires and Hippies: Cannes Gets Invaded by English-Language Indies

Un Certain Regard sidebar is playing host to the terrific indies “The Transfiguration,” “Captain Fantastic” and “Hell or High Water”

Un Certain Regard movies

Like female directors, American directors are sometimes in short supply at the Cannes Film Festival. But just as a couple of the women in competition have shaken things up this year — first Maren Ade with “Toni Erdmann” and then Andrea Arnold with “American Honey” — a pair of young American directors and a British director telling a thoroughly American story, have also made a splash in the Un Certain Regard sidebar.

The Americans are Matt Ross with “Captain Fantastic” and Michael O’Shea with “The Transfiguration,” while the Brit is David Mackenzie with “Hell or High Water.” All are indie directors making quintessentially indie films, the kind that seem more likely to premiere at Sundance than Cannes.

In fact, “Captain Fantastic” did premiere at Sundance in January; Cannes typically invites one Sundance project to make the trip to the Croisette, and Ross’ film landed the slot this year.

Captain Fantastic
“Captain Fantastic”

At Sundance, TheWrap’s reviews editor Alonso Duralde wrote of “Captain Fantastic,” “At Saturday night’s premiere, I found myself laughing and crying through the tale of Ben (Viggo Mortensen above), who raises his six children off the grid and away from civilization’s clutches.

“The film looks great, whether the characters are in the forest primeval or surrounded by mini-malls and golf courses — the great Stéphane Fontaine (‘A Prophet’) is director of photography — and editor Joseph Krings (‘Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead’) keeps the story moving along at a brisk clip, keeping the audience from feeling like they’re watching yet another Sundance movie about an odd family on a road trip,” Duralde said.

The audience at the film’s Cannes premiere on Tuesday clearly agreed, greeting Ross’ wry and touching film with a loud ovation.

The Transfiguration
“The Transfiguration”

Of the two American indies that came to Cannes unseen, “The Transfiguration” was the bigger surprise. It’s a genre movie from a first-time American director who submitted his film on a whim and was amazed to find that he’d been accepted.

His film is about a shy black teenager, Milo, in a poor New York City neighborhood. Bullied at school and by local gang members, Milo is obsessed with vampire movies to the point where he stealthily pursues a sideline as a once-a-month bloodsucker — an obsession that appears to date back to finding his mother’s body after she slit her wrists.

He also critiques vampire movies and books by one criterion — are they accurate? — though it’s unclear whether he is a reliable judge of that: He vomits after most of his kills, after all, and he may well just really want to be a vampire.

An urban teen vampire wannabe who might be faking it is a new kind of vampire-movie protagonist — and while it’s hard to put a truly fresh spin on a genre that has seen such recent reinventions as “Let the Right One In,” O’Shea just about pulls it off.

Eric Ruffin’s Milo is disturbed and disturbing; the guy’s idea of a first date is to show gory online videos of slaughterhouses. And the movie is a low-key, low-budget, low-energy thriller, where neither we nor the character can see a way out but it’s clear he’s on a road to ruin.

Or is he? Vampires, after all, are immortal, right? Is that Milo’s way out of the projects, to outlive the gang members who are giving him problems? “The Transfiguration” deals with that question, among many others, and manages to seem novel, energetic and yeah, a little scary along the way.

Hell or High Water
“Hell or High Water”

David Mackenzie‘s “Hell or High Water” is another genre movie, a Western crime thriller of sorts starring Ben Foster and Chris Pine as brothers who take to robbing a string of small-town Texas banks in an attempt to pay off the house that a bank is trying to foreclose on after the death of heir mother.

With Jeff Bridges in a priceless turn as a grumpy Texas ranger nearing retirement even though he’s clearly always the smartest (and funniest) guy in the room, “Hell or High Water” works as a thriller, as a twist on cops ‘n’ robbers, as a character study of some hard-luck losers in a world where, as Foster’s character says at one point, “I never met anybody who got away with anything, ever.”

Foster’s the crazy one, Pine is the (relatively) sane one, Bridges is the sly and sharp one, and they tangle across a batch of small Texas towns until the bullets start flying and things go bad, as we always figured they would. But we don’t know how they’ll go bad — one of the pleasures of Mackenzie’s film is that the familiar beats don’t come in familiar ways.

“Hell or High Water,” though, also has a killer soundtrack featuring real-deal singers like Townes Van Zandt, Waylon Jennings and Gillian Welch, and more on its mind than just letting the bullets fly. There’s a wonderfully elegiac feel to the movie, which spends its time hanging out in a world of people and places that are being discarded.

This is a thriller that thinks about things like predatory banking and income inequality, although Mackenzie is smart enough to use that to deepen the story, not to overwhelm it. (His last film was the gritty prison drama “Starred Up.”) Almost everybody on screen is part of a dying breed, and that includes the ones who don’t actually die.

But mostly, it’s great because it surely must be the first movie ever to play at Cannes with a line that nobody has ever spoken along the Croisette before: “Sure feels like beer o’clock!”