The rich are delicious ... let’s eat them.
When you near the final stretch of an 11-day film festival stuffed with 245 titles, certain themes and trends naturally coalesce. You start to notice, for instance, the number of movies that grab the mantra of “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” and run with it, sometimes nearly into the ground (Jojo Rabbit, The Painted Bird). There are the films fixated on unknotting the ties that bind (Marriage Story, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood). There are even productions pivoting on the plight of young women who cannot lie without vomiting (that’d be Hustlers and Knives Out).
But at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, one particularly ruthless message has bled through the programming more than most: Eat the rich – because the rest of us are dying.
The struggle of class – the casual indifferent privilege of those at the top, and the ferocious revenge of those below – is essential to nearly a dozen of TIFF’s higher-profile films. So much so that the remainder of this 2019′s movie calendar might be branded #OccupyHollywood.
The theme surfaces most clearly, and with the most cinematic skill, in Parasite, director Bong Joon-ho’s cutting indictment of South Korea’s social strata. Beginning with a have-not family’s comedic scheme to con their way into the lives of a have-too-much dynasty, but flipping itself over midway to reveal a more sinister narrative, Bong’s film lives up to its title and then some. Parasite is an infectious film, one that burrows deep into the thin skin of society, swiftly revealing the sickness inside.
“The relative gap between the rich and poor is only widening. As the country seems wealthy and extravagant, there are people who are like, ‘Why are we still struggling?’ That emotional sense of inferiority and loss is ever more present,” Bong said in an interview with The Globe shortly after the film’s TIFF premiere. “Because it’s not only the emotions of the wealth gap. It manifests itself physically, too.”
Such disparity is on display in Hustlers, which, while not nearly as tightly wound as Parasite, pulses with a rage all its own. Here, director Lorene Scafaria turns the tables on made-in-the-U.S.A. commodification, focusing on a crew of New York strippers (led by a deeply committed Jennifer Lopez) who, tired of being the disposable playthings of hedge-fund bros, decide to play the system for their own ends. The result is messy and sometimes too apologetic, but a convincing case for burning Wall Street to the ground all the same.
The call to action is more blatant in Steven Sodebergh’s The Laundromat, which uses the Panama-Papers leak to sketch a handful of comedic vignettes illustrating the power of a global economy engineered to widen the inequality gap. Some segments work better than others, but the booming anger of Soderbergh comes across throughout, especially at the film’s very end, when a character played by Meryl Streep talks directly to the camera, imploring her audience to ask questions that we can no longer afford to keep to ourselves.
This righteous anger comes across with more visceral brutality, and blood splatter, in two foreign-language films: Spain’s The Platform and Brazil’s Bacurau. The former is an all-access pass to blatant metaphor madness – in a dystopian future, prisoners are stacked vertically on top of one another and forced to fight for a platform of food which descends from the top of the jail to the bottom – while the latter, a cross between The Most Dangerous Game and Midsommar, is more idiosyncratic in its politics. But both force the audience to consider a future where the social gap has widened to horrific realities.
Even the ostensibly mainstream Knives Out and Joker make time to carve up the wealthy.
The former, a crowd-pleasing whodunit from Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson, focuses on the shadowy death of millionaire novelist Harlan Thrombrey (Christopher Plummer) but gives as much attention to the murder-mystery as it does to mocking the privileged idiocy of the moneyed class. The Thrombrey brood, some vocal Trump supporters, believe their vast resources are enough to buy a solution to any problem, even patricide – a notion that Johnson efficiently, maybe over-optimistically, undercuts.
“One of the things I love about Agatha Christie’s books, and you have to squint and remember to see this today, but the character types were all recognizable to society then – inflated, but recognizable,” Johnson told The Globe while in Toronto. “So we wanted to create these character types that are relevant to us today, too. In that way, the social or political element was always baked into the bones of the film.”
Meanwhile, Todd Phillips’s Batman-adjacent thriller Joker attempts to find its focus in a class war; the film’s title clown prince of crime is as much a cause of Gotham’s woes as he is the potential cleanse.
Of course, talking about class fissures at TIFF carries its own inherent irony – tickets to the premieres of most these films would set you back upward of $83 a piece. Go ahead and eat the rich this fall movie season, but budget accordingly.
The 44th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival runs through Sept. 15 (tiff.net)
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