There's an unfortunate trend growing these days, especially when it comes to genre titles, where a film must either be the best or worst ever. The middle ground is vanishing and that's rarely more apparent than at a film festival. Perhaps that's because of how much of a commitment film fests represent. You pay for a badge, you spend your entire days alternating between standing in long lines waiting to watch movies and actually watching movies. And while there are certainly more taxing ways to spend your time, normally a film festival means the bar is set fairly high. So when you come across a movie that doesn't meet expectations, disappointment is understandable. But does disappointment automatically mean that a movie is utterly worthless? You'd think so given the reactions to at least one of the films playing in the Midnight program at SXSW.
Case-in-point Modus Anomali, an English-language Indonesian horror film from Joko Anwar (The Forbidden Door) that opens with a guy climbing out of a shallow grave in the middle of a dark forest with no memory of why he's there or what his name is. He doesn't know what's going on, the audience doesn't know what's going on, and what follows is a slow mystery that lets its action beats leak out in measured drops until its plot reservoir hits a tipping point and finally spills over, reshaping everything we've spent the bulk of the film getting to know. And honestly, I didn't really get the film the first time.
While the credits rolled, I found myself wondering what the point of it all was. I wasn't convinced it made logical sense, and yet at the same time, I couldn't hate the film because part of me still felt that there was just something I was missing about the film; some crucial primer that would let me unlock it. On top of all that, of the handful of people I discussed the film with, no one seemed to be arriving at the same interpretation. Regardless of the shared (or lack thereof) comprehension, though, there did seem to be one consensus from the Twitterverse: Modus Anomali was a terrible and thematically ugly (visually it's remarkable) movie with a mean streak.
Even though I didn't agree with that extreme of a reaction, knowing it was out there had me dreading a second screening. I had agreed to host the intro and Q&A for the film, and going off of what I was reading on the web and overhearing in lines, people were not digging the film's dramatic twists and turns, and I had visions of standing helplessly at the front of the Drafthouse next to a filmmaker with only two possible outcomes: One, he'd be berated with questions from even more people who didn't like his movie. Two, the crowd would have shared my initial reaction to the film and be dead silent in their puzzlement, leaving me to ask all the questions about a movie I wasn't even convinced I understood.
I wasn't expecting what actually happened, that Modus Anomali would not only click perfectly the second time, but that I'd find myself really digging and understanding the funky, atypical track it was on. And as if that wasn't enough to restore confidence in hosting the Q&A, most of the audience not only stuck around (keep in mind it was close to 2 AM by the the time it ended), but were enthusiastic for the film and had plenty of questions to ask. On top of that pleasant surprise, writer-director Joko Anwar ended up having a great sense of humor, offered valuable insights into his process and motivation, and even ended up singing the film's song a cappella on stage.
Now, I won't say specifically what it was that made the film fall into place for me the second time, because to pinpoint it would be a huge spoiler, but it goes to show that we shouldn't be so quick to segregate films as either the best or worst. Exploring that middle ground can lead to great things. I certainly don't think that Modus Anomali is a flawless film just because I watched it a second time, but doing so cleared up all of the lingering questions I had from the first watch. It made me see it for what it is: a memorable entry to the serial killer niche with playful twists and a unique premise.
It also made me wonder if I should give The Tall Man a second chance as well. I found the second film from the director of Martyrs to have a fantastic opening hour that gave way to a dry, meandering second half that seemed completely out of touch with the pulse-pounding chase film it started as. As with Modus, Pascal Laugier's film got mostly negative buzz from its world premiere. Unlike with Modus, though, I didn't feel like I was missing a crucial way into the film. I thought it was perfectly accessible the first time around, there just wasn't anything on the inside. But hey, maybe a second watch will clear that up.
Having said all that, I don't think all movies deserve a second watch. The burden is absolutely on the filmmaker to hook us the first time, and if they don't, too bad. I do, however, wish that people weren't so quick to dismiss films outright; that they leave themselves open to discussion. Obviously we're not all going to love the same films, but if you're going to have a reaction so passionate it borders on anger, that might be intentional. Sometimes confusion, frustration and surprise is the exact hook the filmmaker is going for, and while that may be jarring at first, it can pay off in the end.
By Peter Hall