Festival Files: 2019 Dallas International Film Festival: ‘Shadow,’ ‘Them That Follow’ and ‘Frances Ferguson’

Heavily back-loaded with great film potential upon the first schedule perusal, the 13th edition of the Dallas International Film Festival certainly didn’t disappoint or falter in the waning days. Some of my personal favorites of the entire week long event were late festival selections.

Outside of Olivier Assayas’ Non-Fiction, the other biggest directorial name belonged to Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou. Crafting ground-breaking and genre-busting films for over 30 years now, he’s showing no signs of decline with his latest masterpiece, titled Shadow. Playing like a twisted Shakespearean drama with royal intrigue, ghostly doppelgangers and maddening betrayals, what’s most bracing about the effort is Zhang’s rigorous visual palette. Typically working in eye-popping flourishes — think House of Flying Daggers (2004), Hero (2002) or especially his landmark debut Red Sorghum (1987) — Shadow is a bland, almost black and white affair. But it’s in color. Allow me to explain.

Utilizing muted black and white colors, as well as a mountain setting drenched in a biblical rain storm for the entire duration of the film, Zhang allows the neutral colors to sink under our skin before shocking us with buckets of blood in the final two-thirds. The gnarly wounds and bloodletting is that much more poetic compared to the monotone drama that proceeded it.

Balancing out the hyperbolic action is a carefully plotted love triangle between two identical looking men (both Chao Deng) and the wife of one of them (Li Sun) as they maneuver to regain the city of Jing, a place they both once grew up in.

Hindering their efforts to take back their beloved region is the king (Ryan Zheng), distressed not only by an ever-evolving circle of confidants and warrior generals, but a nagging desire to keep the balance of calm established by Jing’s king (Jun Hu).

While Zhang takes his time establishing the clearly delineated villains and good guys at first, he maintains a grip both aesthetically and emotionally gripping as Shadow culminates in a wickedly good series of action sequences and triple crosses that signify he’s having a great time co-mingling the delirious with the serious. Even though I seem to be one of the few people who greatly enjoyed his previous film, The Great Wall (2017), it’s not outrageous to claim that with Shadow, Zhang Yimou reclaims his status as master world-builder and flavorful storyteller.

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Bob Byington’s Frances Ferguson is the type of snarky character study I usually despise. This time, however, it works, mostly due to the wonderfully droll voice-over by Nick Offerman and a spellbinding lead performance by newcomer Kaley Wheless.

Completely apathetic with her life, including the marriage to her husband (Keith Poulson) and relationship with her mother (Jennifer Prediger), substitute teacher Frances (Wheless) makes the abundantly unwise decision to have an affair with one of her male students (Jake French).

It’s an act that gets her arrested and despised by the entire town. It’s also the part of the story that writer-director Byington spends the least amount of time on, splicing out the salacious and replacing it with a jaded examination of a young woman howling for a spark of … anything.

As Frances goes through rehabilitation and group therapy sessions, Wheless slowly replaces her inner torment — which she expresses through mouth closed, high pitch screams whenever life bears down on her — with a definite sense of multi-faceted depth and acceptance of her bad decisions. It’s not quite full growth for Frances because Byington’s script is too opaque for a linear denouement, but its acidic humor and sure-footed sense of flyover America anomie make for a ferocious comedy.

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Although Britt Poulson and Dan Savage’s Them That Follow exists in a universe woefully underrepresented on film, it’s also a film whose mood and encumbered emotions are telegraphed from the very first few moments.

The universe it situates itself within is the rural, God-fearing backwoods of Eastern American where a group of people live off the map and celebrate their religious beliefs through the charismatic union of man and snake.

Leading his small flock with intense precision, Lemeul (Walton Goggins) faces several challenges, including the growing pressure of outside forces after one of his congregation dies following a snake bite during their mass, and the erosion of belief in his own daughter, Mara (Alice Englert).

Mara has fallen in love with local boy Augie (Thomas Mann), whose own recent withdrawal from the church sets him apart from his faithful parents (Olivia Colman and Jim Gaffigan). Complicating matters even more is that Mara is forced to marry devout follower Garrett (Lewis Pullman), set up by her father whose dedication to the old ways of doing things becomes a malevolent crushing of Mara’s identity.

Spinning several strands and slowly tightening the dread (including one grisly scene towards the end that prompted several walk-outs during the screening), Them That Follow is well crafted and certainly understands how to marinate its brooding subject matter, but it’s a film that feels warmed over from several other efforts. Everything from the soundtrack to Brett Jutkiewicz’s tactile, handheld cinematography denote a concerted effort of independent moroseness whose setting and character development follow expected paths.

All three films will be released at upcoming dates in the future. The 13th edition of the Dallas International Film Festival ran from April 11 through April 18.

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