Today, the TIFF journey rages on with an epic meeting of minds between Errol Morris and Donald Rumsfeld, along with a dirty little American indie filled with blood and spunk (No, not that kind).

The Unknown Known

Errol Morris’ Oscar-winning Robert McNamara grilling, The Fog Of War, has got to be one of the least likely movies to ever get a sequel. Yet, somehow the eccentric chronicler of eccentrics has managed to do it by giving Donald Rumsfeld a similar treatment in The Unknown Known. Inevitably, the films are as different as their subjects. While McNamara came to Morris decades after Vietnam filled with emotion and remorse, Rumsfeld still appears to be in spin-doctor mode, offering the same evasion tactics and steely grin he did in countless press conferences for the Bush administration.

The result, though different, is just as fascinating as the previous film. It’s less direct and more complex with even fewer easy answers. In a way, that’s not unlike the differences between the Vietnam and Iraq wars themselves. As awful as Vietnam was, at least it ended and blame was distributed. The murky waters of Iraq only get more muddied over time and it should come as no surprise that Rumsfeld has not suddenly developed a new take on his time under Bush/Cheney. Even though the politician nimbly dances around any acceptance of guilt or accusation made against his former bosses like a pro (he won’t even admit that it was strange to attend a meeting with Dick Cheney and the Saudi ambassador to discuss the Iraq war before invasion), the film is still intriguingly confessional. Rumsfeld’s barrage of jargon and softened truths eventually seems not just to be a game he plays professionally, but his honest point of view. Perhaps it was developed as a coping mechanism over time, but it becomes clear that his conscience is clean.

As always, Morris has Rumsfeld stare directly into the lens while speaking and intercuts stock footage, news reports and gorgeously constructed montages, backed by a pulsing Danny Elfman score that’s more than a little reminiscent of the one Philip Glass composed for The Fog Of War. It’s impossible not to compare the two films and that’s probably deliberate. They echo and comment on each other with the more recent tragedy feeling as confusingly opaque as Morris’s new film. It’s a frustating yet absolutely fascinating work that makes a single interview feel beautifully cinematic in a way that only Morris could manage.


Blue RuinBlue Ruin

Stark, harsh and to the point, Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin is a textbook example of streamlined indie genre filmmaking. It opens with a bearded vagrant (Macon Blair) digging through trash for food and sleeping in his car. He’s then told that a man from his past has been released from prison and immediately races home for bloody revenge. He cleans himself up to reveal an unexpected dork beneath the dirty, bearded and violent exterior and puts the pieces in place to complete his vengeance. Revealing more would be unfair and yet there isn’t necessarily a grand twist or art house detour that should be hidden. Saulnier has crafted a timelessly effective revenge movie – delivered expertly without any fat or excess.

Saulnier made his debut back in 2007 with the enjoyable horror/comedy Murder Party and has worked ever since as a cinematographer on various independent productions. In the gap between directorial features, he clearly polished the Blue Ruin script into a well-oiled machine. Every moment carefully leads to the next, building up tension and quirky characterization until it can all explode in an inevitably violent finale. It already feels like an indie calling card along the lines of Blood Simple or Reservoir Dogs that suggests big things to come from the filmmaker. As small as this feature is, it’s expertly crafted without ever stretching beyond what was possible through a meager budget.

Wonderfully layered, sad-eyed protagonist Macon Blair (whose performance is spectacular) is joined by amusingly eccentric character actors as Saulnier explores themes like gun control and senseless violence, crafting a few killer set pieces. It’s ultimately just a well-crafted thriller and no masterpiece. However, making something that uses so many familiar elements without ever feeling tired is an achievement and Blue Ruin is an undeniably impressive piece of work. Given the opportunity and resources, Saulnier could clearly make something great. For now, he’s created a strong calling card that should earn him that opportunity.

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