Wednesday, October 7, 2009

On DVD: "Adoration"

Atom Egoyan can be a tough filmmaker to get your head around. His 2008 film Adoration grazes some weighty topics—terrorism, xenophobia, exploitation of tragedy—but when you boil it down, it’s about what all of his films are about: the precarious nature of the truth, and the tricky mining of the past in an arguably vein attempt to attain said truth.

In Adoration, Egoyan again tells his story in the fractured, circular style that has become his signature (his previous films include Exotica, Ararat, and his masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter). Nothing is definite; characters and incidents are glimpsed instead of explained; important scenes are spread out over the course of an entire narrative, gradually revealing dribbles of additional information; long-held secrets are held in confidence until the last possible moment. His methodology can, frankly, be a little maddening.

The mere nature of his storytelling makes summarizing his screenplays next to impossible; of this one, I will say that it involves a young student (Devon Bostick) who has lived with his uncle (Scott Speedman, in a serious actor beard) since the death of his parents (Rachel Blanchard and Noam Jenkins). One day, he tells his French class a story about how his father tried to use his mother to smuggle an explosive device onto a transcontinental flight. It is not surprising that the story has ramifications; what is unexpected is how far they reach, up to and including the boy’s teacher (Arsinee Khanjian).

More than that I cannot divulge. Egoyan is not a filmmaker for all tastes; at times, his hide-and-seek style can be downright exasperating, and the question must be asked of his work that is asked of anyone working with fractured timelines and circular storytelling: is it a gimmick? Is this a story that would be as compelling if told straightforward, without all the structural trickery?

The answer, I believe, is yes. Egoyan’s motives may not always be clear, but he is never purposefully confusing—he demands patience, sure, but does not take that patience for granted. Even when we’re not sure exactly where we are, we’re certain that we’re in the hands of a skilled storyteller, and the picture works on a moment-to-moment basis; from its opening frames, the film is intriguing and atmospheric. Much of this is due to Paul Sarossy’s excellent cinematography and yet another skilful Mychael Danna score, but Egoyan’s a sure hand at sustaining mystery.

Some of his devices don’t land. Several scenes involving the young man’s interactions with friends and adults in web chat rooms don’t fit at all; they play awkward and heavy-handedly, becoming easy vehicles for armchair didacticism. And as well-written as the film is (mostly), the elliptical dialogue is sometimes hard to engage with.

Performances are mostly strong. Rachel Blanchard (surprisingly good in Egoyam’s earlier Where the Truth Lies) makes the most of her limited screen time. Neither Speedman nor Bostick is terribly showy, which is a good choice; they’re most effective, though Bostick is sometimes a little too much of a blank slate (some of his line readings are too flat). Khanjian has the trickiest role of all, revealing everything and nothing simultaneously, and she plays it masterfully.

Adoration has its share of problems, but Atom Egoyan remains one of our most fascinating, challenging directors. His storytelling quirks and stylistic indulgences may irritate less patient viewers, but those who turn themselves over to this film may find themselves richly rewarded.

"Adoration" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, October 13th.

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