Here’s a sucker punch: The best action stars of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival are Anne Heche and Sandra Oh, the vicious leading ladies of Onur Tukel’s Catfight. Catfight is an A-plus B movie with a cruel edge. Heche and Oh play college frenemies who run into each other at a cocktail party two decades later and all hell breaks loose. Heche is a pretentious artist who specializes in god-awful cartoons about capitalism and greed. (Naturally, she’s broke.) Oh is the rich, alcoholic housewife of a titan who hates her. The old classmates are civil for a minute, and then, in the stairwell, they explode with misdirected rage. These monsters are no hair-pulling ninnies. They grab wrenches and hammers and bash each other’s skulls against the wall until one of them is unconscious. I couldn’t stop cackling.
The twist is that Tukel’s script is as merciless as the fight choreography. His characters use words like shivs, and the world they’re living in is even worse. A new Middle East war burns in the background, and though these two ladies are too self-centered to give a shit, the faraway violence singes their lives. These scenes are almost political satire and I wish their point about repressed female anger left more of a bruise. But really, Catfight is just a camp delight. To any movie producers who think women over 40 can only play moms, look out: Heche and Oh are coming for you.
In fact, this year’s TIFF is ruled by savage chicks. After Catfight, I slipped into Brimstone, a two-and-a-half-hour Wild West epic starring Dakota Fanning as a mute frontierswoman who’s silently panicked by the arrival of a new small-town preacher played by Guy Pearce. Before either one can explain to her confounded husband and two kids, they’ve grabbed knives. The title had me expecting a sloppy witchcraft twist, but Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven is after something slipperier: the different ways women lose their voice by violence, fear, or force, and the punishment they’ll inflict on everyone, themselves included, to be heard. Fanning and Pearce go at each other like damned souls who’ve accepted they’ll wind up in hell. (Though Pearce’s priest spins the Bible to justify any sin he wants.) They’re a combustible pair in a volcanic film that bursts into bloodbaths. I feared a stilted drag, but the minutes sped by. Tick, tick, tick, boom.
There’s no missing the metaphor in British filmmaker Alice Lowe’s Prevenge. At seven-and-a-half months pregnant, Lowe directed and starred in this serial killer flick about a single mom-to-be whose fetus orders her to slice throats. “It’s like a hostile takeover,” growls Ruth to her obstetrician. Her daughter controls her mood and makes her nipples leak milk — and those are just the normal side effects. All her doc can do is tut-tut that every mother must put the baby’s needs first. Ruth starts by slaying creeps who deserve it: the pet shop owner who asks if she wants to touch his “big snake,” the DJ man-baby who still lives with his mother, the female CEO who won’t hire her because she’d have to pay maternity leave. The second half of the film feels rushed, as though Lowe just wanted to push the movie out and be done with it. Still, I cherish the scenes of Lowe’s Ruth, a severe brunette most comfortable in gray and black sweats, disguising herself as a mousy mum and a no-self-esteem barfly, all the while knowing that a pregnant belly makes you invisible to the cops.
And then there’s French teenager Garance Marillier, the lead in Julia Ducournau’s college cannibal movie, Raw. Marillier’s Justine is tiny and doe-eyed, a little doll who loves animals so much she’s never tasted one. That changes when she enrolls in a veterinary school where the upperclassmen — including her big sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf) — haze the newbies with naked raves. Forget reality: This is a nightmare vet school as imagined by a mom who’s been doped with LSD and planted in front of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Justine is painted blue, shoved into a bedroom with a boy painted yellow, and ordered to come back green. As a horny virgin, she’s game. But after her sister forces her to chug a rabbit kidney, Justine starts hungering for blood. Her appetite is so grisly that at the midnight premiere, the festival paramedics were called twice. Sensitive audiences might want to close their eyes when Alexia gives her little sis an unwanted bikini wax. Keep them closed until the screams stop — on-screen and off.
I haven’t yet had a chance to watch the second cannibal flick of the fest, Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch, which stars Jason Momoa, Keanu Reeves, and Jim Carrey. I’m stoked to see the young writer-director’s follow-up to the Farsi-language vampire chiller A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which had one of the great images of 2015: a woman wearing a chador on a skateboard, flapping her arms like a bat. But if cannibalism is horror’s new trend, I’m in. After a decade of dull zombie flicks starring slack-jawed monsters, I welcome lively man-eaters, especially if they’re as magnetic as Marillier.
Finally, I've gotta mention Walter Hill's surgery thriller (Re)Assignment about a surgeon (Sigourney Weaver) who kidnaps macho Frank, the hitman who killed her brother, and snips and silicones him until he wakes up as Michelle Rodriguez. Rodriguez also plays the male role, and in her early scenes as pre-operation Frank, she's been given a swinging dick and giant beard that make her look like Dave Navarro. The actress isn't getting much help from the filmmakers, who seem to have simply glued a cheap wig to her chin and thrown her in the crossfires of our complex national conversation about gender representation. But Rodriguez's "male" body language is good and I was glad Hill avoided the low comedy of forcing Frank to wear the dress and high heels the bad doc left on his nightstand. Instead, Rodriguez pads barefoot to buy a pair of jeans.
Rodriguez isn't playing a trans character. She's playing a furious man named Frank, who is still Frank even though the doctor cut off his penis. That's an opening for a tricky talk about identity. But Frank -- and the film -- aren't interested. All it wants is payback. And it's started a controversy off-screen, as well, with activists who worry (Re)Assignment is an offensive throwback to schlock stereotypes. You could argue that Frank actually defends the right to choose their gender, and the trauma of being trapped in the wrong body. But why bother when the film itself doesn't? Instead, (Re)Assignment is oddly bland. It’s all surface and no subtext, and worse, it cost me $5 when I bet that Rodriguez would wield her gun like a dick. Guess I’ll have to wait for a smarter dumb movie — one that doesn’t pull its punches.