As the 39th Portland International Film Festival enters its second weekend, the most compelling picks from Erik McClanahan and Marc Mohan include an enigmatic French film that demands to be seen on a big screen and a dark Dutch comedy about a pair of hit men trying to hit each other.
“Evolution”: In the hands of writer/director Lucile Hadžihalilović, a collaborator and spouse of Gaspar Noé (“Enter The Void”) whose first feature was the excellent 2004 boarding school-set “Innocence,” this dream-that-becomes-a-nightmare is a caustic, austere slow-burn narrative that’s rewarding and sneakily eerie. Even at a brisk 81 minutes, it breathes slowly but never loses its focus.
“Evolution” follows a group of young boys on a mysterious island inhabited only by them and a few adult women with potentially nefarious plans. It’s a wonderful arthouse genre piece that’s anything but generic. Hadžihalilović and her crew are zero in on specific details; the images, sounds and overall atmosphere are dreamy and ethereal, until things turn quietly nightmarish in the second half. The tonal transition is subtle, resulting in a film that carries several moods at once, but never feels random or inconsistent. You’re in the hands of a gifted visual storyteller here.
This is the favorite film of the entire festival for After Dark curator Nick Bruno, for good reason. Late Friday night is your only chance to see it on the big screen, where its weirdness and slow-drip narrative can perfectly lure a tired, susceptible mind into its bold vision and creepy tones. [Erik McClanahan]
(France, 81 min., in French with English subtitles) Fri., Feb. 19, 11 p.m., Cinema 21.
“Schneider vs. Bax”: This dark, bone-dry Dutch comedy about a pair of hired killers trying to take each other out feels ripe for American remake, even though Hollywood would probably botch the deadpan absurdity that director Alex van Warmerdam brings to the proceedings. The first of the eponymous hit men we meet is Schneider (Tom Dewispelaere), a family man who’s assigned to take out Ramon Bax (van Warmerdam). He grabs his sniper rifle and heads out to Bax’s isolated lakeside cottage, hoping to be home in time for his daughter’s birthday party.
Bax (whom Schneider has been told is a child killer) turns out to have a long gun of his own stashed around the place, as well as a visiting, depressed, adult daughter; an emotionally volatile lover; and a lecherous, elderly father. Complications and, of course, violence ensue. The droll pitch of “Schneider vs. Bax” keeps it from achieving true heights of either humor or horror, and it’s never as psychologically disturbing as van Warmerdam’s previous flick, “Borgman.”
But it’s still fun in its own offhandedly demented way. Van Warmerdam, who often acts in his own films, brings a relatable world-weariness to the pill-popping Bax. And behind the camera, he makes very effective use of the reedy marshes surrounding the besieged cottage. [Marc Mohan]
(Netherlands, 96 min., in Dutch with English subtitles) Fri., Feb. 19, 8:30 p.m., World Trade Center; also Mon., Feb. 22, 8:30 p.m., Cinema 21.