This is Part II of KHOL film critic Jeff Counts’ coverage of the first-ever virtual Sundance Film Festival. Listen to Part I here.
I had the chance to screen some of the 15 non-competition premieres at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Even in my small sample size, there was a wide range of subjects to explore, and a wider range of quality to contend with. I’ll talk about three of them here.
First and definitely least was “Prisoners of the Ghostland.” Pitched as an “East-meets-West vortex of beauty and violence,” this was supposed to be a pulpy fun house full of eccentric imagery and ample opportunities for Nicolas Cage to act like Nicolas Cage. Cage plays a brutal bank robber incarcerated in a surreal Japanese town. He’s sent into a poisoned wasteland to rescue the adopted daughter of the village Boss Hogg and…well…that’s it. It’s as quirky and bloody as promised, but it’s also awful. There’s no internal logic. Nobody to root for. Nothing to redeem the visually arresting but tonally nonsensical world it builds. A huge disappointment—but this next film was anything but.
“Land” is Robin Wright’s debut as a feature film director. It’s the story of an emotionally shattered woman (portrayed by Wright herself) who seeks solace in a remote section of the Rockies. Edee’s journey back to life is helped along by a local hunter, and the platonic affection they cultivate for one another is the best thing about this film. Demian Bichir plays Miguel, a man suffering his own long-held grief. I really hope his performance gets an Oscar nod. Since we have to experience Edee’s pain with very little context at first, Miguel’s gentle patience is a necessary heartbeat beneath the sadness. There is nothing risky about the filmmaking on display in “Land.” Wright seems content to let the mountain setting speak for itself and, secondarily, her characters. It’s a light touch style that mostly serves the heavy subject matter well. But the third act might have benefitted from a clearer thesis on the limits of isolation as a therapeutic means. “Land”is not perfect. But there is no question that Robin Wright could someday be as impressive behind the camera as she is in front of it.
Last and maybe best was “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Directed by television veteran Shaka King, it is based on the true story of Fred Hampton and the Chicago Black Panther Party’s betrayal by FBI informant Bill O’Neal. It’s a straight down the middle biopic, but I don’t call it such to condemn it. Unless a director decides to take big formal chances, biographical films live and die by their performances. “Judas and the Black Messiah” has that covered. Daniel Kaluuya is too hot to touch as Hampton. He burns through every frame with an intensity that could only have been matched by an equal. Thankfully, there are several on this fantastic ensemble cast. Most notable is LaKeith Stanfield as O’Neal, Judas himself. Both men seem destined for a multiple-Oscar career and seeing them together at the top of their games is a thrill. Attempts are made early on to give Jessie Plemons’ FBI handler character a third dimension, but he’s mostly a cardboard cutout by the end. The same could be said of most of the antagonists, really. It doesn’t matter though. This is not their story.
From truly mindless spectacles to bona fide awards contenders, the 2021 Sundance premiere roster had a little bit of everything. It will be fun to catch the rest of them when they release. Even compromised, Sundance took good care of its brand this year and confirmed the importance of this art form. I can’t wait to get back to Park City in 2022.