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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

TIFF Review: A Night for Dying Tigers

Tolstoy would have loved the Yates family in Terry MilesA Night for Dying Tigers. Every unhappy family may be unhappy in its own way, but the Yates, more-or-less normal though they may seem on the surface, are just about as messed up a family as you can hope to find in an indie film.

There’s certainly a prevalence of dysfunctional family setups in independent films, for better for for worse, but, this film leans more towards a stylilzed arthouse feel than your than typical low-budget indie family drama, and thankfully, no holidays, roasted turkeys or road trips are involved.

The storyline, about the messed-up relationships, long-standing competition and feuding among four siblings, and the various not-so-secret secrets revealed at a family gathering the night before the eldest Yates brother reports for a five-year prison sentence, somewhat evokes Festen, that marvelous Danish masterpiece of familial angst that was the first of the Dogme films.

Where Festen started out as an innocuous birthday gathering, then relied upon building tension leading up to a shocking reveal at the end, though, Miles instead reveals that his characters have some serious issues as soon as we meet them. “Aha,” we think, knowing this family is clearly deliciously dysfunctional — not quite in the seriously depraved Dogtooth sense of dysfunction, but still, obviously there’s a lot going on here. We don’t know quite how it will all fall together, but Miles uses a taut, controlled approach of smaller reveals that, a drop at a time, erode the family gathering as we wait with bated breath to see how it will all play out.

Here’s what we have here by the way of the set up: three brothers, all genius prodigies and the product of equally brilliant parents, and one adopted younger sister, fragile, cracked, and never shining as brightly as her brothers. A mother’s experiment, as one of the brothers says, in “nature versus nurture.”

Russell (John Pyper-Ferguson) is a Booker Prize-winning novelist, Patrick (Tygh Runyan) a successful director of horror films who’s just been greenlit for a more serious literary adaptation, and Jack (Gil Bellows), the stalwart oldest brother around whom the family is gathering at the family homestead, is about to go off to prison for five years. Fragile sister Karen (Lauren Lee Smith) has been charged with organizing the festivities.

The family home, which is the heartbeat of what’s left of the Yates family, was designed and built by their famous architect father for their art historian mother, a physical symbol of the very greatness to which the Yates siblings were always expected to aspire.

The relationships among the four siblings are revealed, more or less, through the women woven peripherally into their tale: dinner guest Laney (Jessica Heafey), a friend and past lover of all three brothers; Amanda (Sarah Lind) Karen’s friend who is onhand catering the affair, who seems to know all the family skeletons; Melanie (Jennifer Beals) Jack’s long-suffering wife; Jules (Kathleen Robertson), Jack’s longtime lover and the inadvertent cause of his prison sentence; and fresh-faced Carly (Leah Gibson), Russell’s much younger grad student girlfriend, the one outside observer of all that unfolds.

Old feuds, resentments and secrets simmer and boil, simmer and boil, in a deliberately unsettling rhythm as the wine flows and the party progresses. Miles carefully guides his players through a series of emotional hills and valleys around all the family history while Carly, who just thought she was meeting her boyfriend’s family, and had no idea of what she was getting into here, plays witness as the chaotic underpinnings of complicated sibling and marital relationships begin to unravel any pretense of social politeness.

The film feels, structurally, very much like a stage play, and Miles tends to keep his camera close to the action, creating a sense of intimacy between audience and story that very much draws the viewer into the psychological drama of the characters as it all plays out. This is a study in character and relationships, mostly; there’s very little in the way of narrative arc, character arcs, or inappropriately melodramatic moments, even when the film hits its most emotional peak.

Miles seems not to be passing judgment on his characters, so much as he simply allows us a glimpse into the lives of this very interestingly unhappy family at this pivotal point in their family history; he leaves it to us to judge for ourselves whether the uniqueness of their upbringing by parents determined to raise child prodigies excuses their questionable moral behavior as adults.

In a way, this film did remind me a bit of Dogtooth, one of my favorite films at last year’s TIFF. While A Night for Dying Tigers lacks Dogtooth‘s raw, edgy, weirdness, they have similar themes of children whose uniquely odd upbringing has very much shaped them into the flawed, imperfect, interestingly unhappy people we see during our time with them.

Of all the films I saw at Toronto, I’d have to say this film surprised me the most; I went into it with very little in the way of expectations, and came out of it quite impressed by the direction and performances. Beal and Smith are particularly noteworthy, but all the cast is solid.

I give Miles credit as a writer, as well, for not leaning on those dual crutches of the family melodrama, voice-over and exposition, to convey to us what we need to know about the Yates siblings and what made them the way they are. We learn enough about them peripherally to draw us into their story, and from there Miles pretty much just gets out of the way and lets his actors bring it on home.

Overall, I thought A Night for Dying Tigers was rather brilliant, and I hope it gets picked up for distribution. Well done.

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2 Responses to “TIFF Review: A Night for Dying Tigers”

  1. Bonnie says:

    The description of the storyline, the great cast and the clip from the film are so enticing. Having now read this review and others, I really want to see it. I hope it gets distribution or that it is otherwise made available for viewing. Beals’ character in The Book of Eli was the moral center of the film and her performance was great. It seems that Melanie may be the same in this film. so I am looking forward to seeing her in this movie.

  2. Linda says:

    Great review.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon