Tiff report #4: Truth, Downriver, Freeheld

Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett take on a real-life story about journalistic integrity, an ex-convict returns home after his release from prison, and Julianne Moore and Ellen Page star as a lesbian couple fighting for their rights in a feel-good Oscar bait piece—all in today’s TIFF report.


Still from Downriver

TIFF is well-known for being ground zero for most Oscar buzz (it even says it on their Wikipedia, the holiest and most trusted source of all knowledge); I have to admit that I didn’t really live that last year, as I only spent a couple of days at the festival. This year, however, buzz is unavoidable in both the figurative and the literal sense. It’s impossible to go anywhere, wait in any line without overhearing people breathlessly run through the things they’ve seen and the Oscars they predict. It’s a rather interesting thing to experience, as it’s often less elaborate and more truthful than the more complex prognostication done by film blogs and critics run amok on Twitter.

That having been said, not a single person has said that they do not see Brie Larson in the running for her performance in Room. Conversely, it will be very surprising if Tom Hiddleston’s hotly-tipped performance in I Saw The Light goes anywhere; my own middling reception of it is by far the most positive I’ve heard anyone be about the film thus far. I haven’t heard anyone talk about Freeheld yet, but let me engage in a little buzz creating myself and predict that the Academy will be all over that shit.




There’s been a rash of old-fashioned films about journalism lately with films like Kill the Messenger and True Story that revel in the practice of muck-raking journalism from the turn of the century (the most recent one, of course). It might be a blatant attempt to lionize the last generation of “true journalism” before clickbait took over, but it’s resulted in a solid batch of films that now include screenwriter James Vanderbilt’s directorial debut, Truth.

Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) is a producer on the venerable news program 60 Minutes, anchored by the legendary Dan Rather (Robert Redford). Mapes uncovers a potential story in a bunch of documents from the Air Force that suggest then-president George W. Bush was not perfectly honest about his own service. Mapes obtains copies of the documents from a retired Air Force lieutenant-colonel (Stacy Keach) and, under incredibly short deadline pressure, creates an extensive piece just in time for Bush’s potential re-election. Soon, however, many pundits note that the documents very closely resemble the presets of a Microsoft Word document, and Mapes, her team (Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss) and Rather find themselves embroiled in an ethical shitstorm of massive proportions.

Vanderbilt’s best film as a writer is Fincher’s Zodiac; thankfully, he applies the same meticulous attention to detail to this absorbing debut. It takes a certain type of talent to make movie stars yelling about paragraph spacing and font choices not just interesting but utterly enthralling. Blanchett is predictably great in the lead, with Redford doing a surprisingly convincing job as Rather. If there’s anything that can be held against Truth, it’s that it’s so solidly matter-of-fact that there really isn’t that much to say about it. It’s well-made, it’s solid – but it’s not really a conversation piece.

Truth is set for a Montreal release date in mid to late October.



Downriver is a movie that’s both extremely clunkily written and remarkably beautiful; it’s kind of film where people talk in circles around each other because the withholding of information is the only thing that keeps the plot on its rails, but it also has moments of true poetry and brutality. Australian director Grant Sicluna’s first film, Downriver tells the story of a young man named James who has spent most of his life in juvenile detention for the murder of a young boy when he himself was only ten. The boy’s body was never found, but his “accomplice” testified against James, setting out the course of his life while he remained free. James returns to the sleepy rural town where the events happened determined to make a new life for himself but still obsessed with the way the events really turned out.

Downriver has the quiet, moody brutality of something like The Snowtown Murders coupled with a Gregg Araki-esque queer sensuality; the combination is potent, but Scicluna’s script is often clunky and inscrutable. It’s not that the film is “weird” in a Lynchian way; instead, Scicluna plays his cards incredibly close to the vest and withholds so much information from the viewer that the film may as well be silent for all the sense it makes in the early run. Narrative construction – a narrative that, once revealed, isn’t significantly more complex than your average true-crime show on basic cable – isn’t Scicluna’s forte, but his flair for mood and atmosphere is promising.

Downriver is not currently slated for a Montreal release.




TIFF isn’t a competitive festival; unlike many festivals, it doesn’t have a jury. The only prizes given are voted on by ticket holders who drop their stubs in boxes presented by volunteers – the most important of these being the People’s Choice award. The winner of the People’s Choice award tends to be something crowd-pleasing, emotionally rousing and Oscar-baity – Precious, The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire have all gotten it in the past – and I’m convinced the frontrunner for the prize this year is Peter Sollett’s Freeheld, a crowd-pleasing, emotionally rousing and politically timely true-life story of same-sex equality.

Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) is a New Jersey police detective who remains firmly in the closet in public as she believes coming out would hinder her chances of moving ahead; nevertheless, she is in a happy and loving relationship with her mechanic girlfriend Stacie (Ellen Page). When Laurel is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, she asks for her pension to be transferred to Stacie, something that the town’s freeholders refuse. As Laurel’s condition worsens, her partner Dane (Michael Shannon) goes on a crusade against the freeholders, enlisting a flamboyant gay-marriage activist (Steve Carell) in the process.

That Freeheld is written by the same screenwriter as Philadelphia tells you just about everything you need to know about Sollett’s film; it’s a heartfelt though schematic “issue” movie that obviously has its heart in the right place but also falls square in the tradition of socially-conscious tearjerkers. It’s impossible to be fully cynical about a film with intentions as noble as this and a cast as likeable as this one, but it’s also more than a little difficult to see it as completely removed from the Oscar bait sausage factory. It’s touching and heartfelt and actually kind of important – I just wish it didn’t look and feel like it was already so convinced of this fact, but I won’t deny that it’s a story worth being told, told well.

(The screening I was at, the film’s world premiere, was greeted with a literal slow clap for full Oscar bait bingo potential.)

Freeheld is set for release in Montreal in early October.


See our previous TIFF 2015 reports here.

Keep an eye on Cult MTL for daily TIFF coverage through Sept. 20