September 14, 2023

Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “The Zone Of Interest,” “Expats” & “Finestkind”


THE ZONE OF INTEREST (A24 – TBD):  Jonathan Glazer has only directed 4 feature films in his 23-year career (the most recent was Under the Skin a decade ago).  His latest, The Zone of Interest, is a work of formal brilliance, although unlikely to be to the taste of mainstream audiences.  So rigorous and painstaking in its control that simply to describe it is to “spoil” it in a sense, Zone is very loosely inspired by the novel by the late Martin Amis.  After Glazer has presented us with a German family enjoying a lazy day by the waterside, we come to see that just beyond their driveway and luxurious garden, there’s a stout wall, and past that are chimneys belching out smoke, which the family ignores.  Gradually we come to understand that the complex next store is Auschwitz, and that the family is that of camp Commandant Rudolf Hoss (Christian Friedel).  Glazer’s cameras never go into the camp, and the film includes no on-screen violence.  As Hoss and his wife (Sandra Huller) make domestic plans and play with their children, it’s only in the exquisitely realized sound design (by Johnnie Burn) and off-handed remarks about the efficiency of moving “units” into the ovens that the atrocities next door are evident.  This is the banality of evil made brutally plain, and even more daringly, Glazer pulls us into the story of Hoss’s ambitions and the couple’s spats when he’s ordered to a new command that would take his wife and children out of their lovely camp-adjacent home.  Scenes that would otherwise seem drably undramatic are charged by our knowledge of what’s happening just outside the frame, and the restraint of the approach invites us to recognize parallels between willful blindness and accommodations to the barbarities of the Holocaust and to those we ourselves may be ignoring today.  Glazer’s sole expression of the roiling horrors of the story comes through the remarkable score by Mica Levi (who also provided the music for Under the Skin).  Glazer’s techniques, which include the use of as many as 10 simultaneous cameras by cinematographer Lukasz Zal, as well as exact reconstructions of Hoss’s house and gardens by production designer Chris Oddy, are icy and precise.  The film, particularly through a climactic coup de cinema, bursts past being a mere exercise or gimmick to become horrifying in a wholly original way.

EXPATS (Amazon Prime – TBD 2024):  Lulu Wang’s series, based on the novel “The Expatriates” by Janice Y.K. Lee, will eventually run for 6 episodes on streaming TV.  Unusually, Wang chose to show the 5th of the 6 episodes at Toronto, as what was conceived as a relatively free-standing, feature-length installment.  Therefore, although the series as a whole will center on relatively well-off expatriates in 2014 Hong Kong, with a cast headed by Nicole Kidman, the TIFF episode had Kidman’s character, as well as another played by Sarayu Blue, relatively in the background.  Instead, it centered on the domestic workers for those families, the Filipino Essie (Ruby Ruiz) who works for Kidman’s character, and Puri (Amelyn Pardenilla), employed by Blue’s character, and it takes place on the Sunday that a typhoon hits Hong Kong.  It’s difficult to make a judgment based on a single out-of-order episode, especially since it appears that the key plot point of the overall series will be one involving Kidman’s character.  Nevertheless, it’s clear that Wang, who also wrote the episode, has all of the perceptiveness and empathy that made her The Farewell so notable, and here she also has the chance to work on a larger visual scale, with storm scenes throughout the chapter.  Ruiz and Pardenilla give moving performances, and the ironies of Essie’s story have an impact, while Puri’s storm day has echoes of a particular plotline in Season 1 of The White Lotus.  Expats certainly seems like a worthy project, and we’ll find out in 2024 whether Wang has successfully realized her series in full.

FINESTKIND (Paramount+ – TBD):  Brian Helgeland is a veteran writer and director with scripts like LA Confidential to his credit, so it probably isn’t the case that Taylor Sheridan, one of Finestkind‘s producers, inserted himself to transform the film’s 3rd act into a bloody crime drama.  But one certainly feels the shift in tone from the relatively gentle family story that begins the film to what ensues.  Until that point, the story had revolved around Charlie (Toby Wallace), raised by monied parents (Tim Daly and Lolita Davidovich), fresh out of college and accepted to a prestigious law school, but longing for the fishing boat life of his half-brother Tom (Ben Foster).  Charlie signs on to work for the summer with Tom, and becomes even more attached to the New Bedford seagoing world when he falls for tough local girl Mabel (Jenna Ortega).  Tom, who already owes money to local loansharks, suffers back-to-back nautical disasters, and it’s when his problems become life-threatening that Finestkind segues unconvincingly into a different genre.  After that, the cliches and contrivances pile up, wasting solid performances by Wallace, Foster, Ortega and Tommy Lee Jones as Tom’s very grizzled dad, and the film becomes both brutal and sentimental.  In what appears to have been an attempt to make itself more “commercial,” Finestkind self-destructs, smashing together pieces that simply don’t fit.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."