Horror wears a familiar face in Kasra Farahani’s 'Tilt'
We’ve entered an interesting phase in moviegoing, when films made BT—that’s Before Trump, or before his election—must necessarily be viewed through the lens of the Great Orange Gasbag’s rise to power. Such is the case with Kasra Farahani’s Tilt, part of this year’s stellar (in my experience) Tribeca Film Festival horror/genre lineup. Joseph Cross (“Big Little Lies,” Lincoln) stars as Joseph Burns, a man who—in Cross’ words—“has probably felt entitled to a certain amount of greatness his whole life.” The fictional Joseph is liberal to a degree that reads as performative, statements like “Give it up, Donald. The day of the blustery, angry white man is over!” dropping from his lips—the lips of another blustery, angry white man—without an apparent ounce of self-awareness. He constantly lectures his pregnant wife (Alexia Rasmussen), his friends, anyone who will listen on income inequality and gun control and the myth of the American dream.
That last subject is the basis of his new documentary, which he repeatedly insists will cause a “cultural disruption”… if he ever finishes it, which looks unlikely. He’s creatively blocked. He can’t afford a smartphone or a car. His wife clearly doesn’t respect him. With fatherhood and professional failure looming, Joseph begins to crack. Written by Farahani and Jason O'Leary, Tilt reads like an alt-right horror story, with the psyche of hordes of homegrown neo-fascists condensed into one man who thinks he deserves better and lashes out in terrible, violent ways when he doesn’t get it.
Strange, then, that Farahani and O’Leary wrote Tilt back in the fall of 2015 and filmed the bulk of it of January of the following year. It was long before Trump was considered a “serious” candidate, back when the alt-right was for the most part an Internet-dwelling fringe group. “There is this populist rage that has been emboldened in a way we haven’t seen in literally decades in Western democracies,” says Farahani. “Organizing into alarmingly effective political groups. Espousing messages that are not unlike some of the stuff that this character is going through. Certainly, we didn’t know about any of this” when writing and filming Tilt.
Some of that “stuff”—a core component of Joseph’s character—is a mounting urge to, per Farahani, “go through with blowing up his life.” It’s echoed in the graffiti that peppers his long, late night strolls through Los Angeles, the very landscape itself directing Joseph to “blow up everything” and admonishing him that “only dead fish follow the stream.” It’s another unintentional connection to current events, calling as it does to mind the now-infamous (if unsubstantiated) quote from White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon: “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
Joseph, being a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, would hate the Bannon comparison… or at least claim to. His simmering rage at not having the life he feels entitled to is “the story of a lot of people in this country right now,” says Cross. “While this guy’s outwardly really liberal, maybe inside he wouldn’t mind Trump winning the election!”
It’s that contrast between how Joseph presents himself to others—even how he seems himself—and how he really is that gives Tilt its sense of creeping horror. “My co-writer and I are not natural horror people,” Farahani explains. “It’s not something we’re drawn to. [We’re a] little bit squeamish, as it goes. But what we were interested in was the challenge of making something really scary because of how real it is, how banal it can be… Real horror comes not from the guy in the clown mask with a machete. It comes from the person you trust the most turning out to be very dangerous.”
“He’s not the sort of bad guy we’re comfortable writing off,” adds Cross. “The Muslim terrorist or the redneck or whatever. Here’s a guy that outwardly looks like people we are friends with.”
Cross and Farahani both point out that Joseph is, at times, sympathetic. “Or at least empathetic,” the latter clarifies. “You’re able to see things from his point of view. [His situation is] legitimately frustrating, [though] obviously his behavior is an inexcusable reaction to those things.” Cross is “really a subtle, nuanced actor,” the director explains, but there’s also “a kindness about him, just in his physicality. It was a great way to subvert how despicable the character is, and hopefully to create conflict in people when they’re looking at this guy.”
In order to play Joseph, “you need to identify with his grievances,” Cross explains. “He believes himself to be a great documentary filmmaker who’s not being given what’s due to him. And I think we all have moments of those frustrations.” On top of that, looming on the horizon is a future where he’s given up his dream job in order to support a child he doesn’t want with a wife who doesn’t seem to like him all that much. (Though she is, you know, pregnant, so you can’t blame her for losing patience with her husband’s fits of self-indulgence. There is one stand-up-and-cheer moment where she points out that she’s holding down a steady job and studying for the MCATs while another person is literally growing inside of her, so maybe he can get his shit together.)
The visual style of Tilt enforces Joseph’s sense of isolation. Farahani and his team—including cinematographer Alexander Alexandrov and production designer Margaret Box—avoided the glitz and the grit that tend to be the two poles of Los Angeles-set movies. Joseph’s late-night walkabouts take place in “South and East Los Angeles, in some of the more industrial and seedy parts [of the city]. I call this the sad palm tree movie, because there are a lot of misshapen palm trees in the film,” Farahani explains. At the same time, these atmospheres are open and vibrantly lensed, dotted with “big, bright colored lights” that provide a marked contrast to the claustrophobic “cozy cottage vibe” of Joseph’s house. Says Farahani, “He feels like he can’t be himself [there] and has to put on a show. Then he goes out into this cold, indifferent industrial landscape, and in some ways it’s more beautiful because he’s able to exercise these unhealthy compulsions and urges,” like picking fights and…well, spoilers.
Suffice to say, it’s an easy leap to imagine the cutthroat Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) of Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler chasing down an ambulance a few miles away from where Joseph’s inching towards full-blown psychopathic monster territory. It’s a comparison that Cross finds fitting: “There’s something to real horror coming from people that are just a little bit closer to normal than we all feel comfortable admitting to ourselves.”