CARDINALS: Sin & Sorrow In Small-Town Canada (#TIFF)
Cardinals is a tense and subtly effective thriller set in small-town Canada, bolstered by strong performances and complex themes.
This review is part of Film Inquiry’s ongoing coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. The film was viewed before the festival commenced.
There’s malice in the air right from the get-go in Grayson Moore and Aidan Shipley’s effective debut, Cardinals. As machinery whirs ominously at an industrial plant in a quiet Canadian town, an employee named Valerie Walker (Sheila McCarthy) leaves her two daughters to their homework while she completes the last hour of her shift.
In one fleeting frame, another worker sidles up to one of the daughters while Valerie works in her office. Shortly after, it’s nightfall, and Valerie is clutching the wheel of her car, the camera glimpsing a lone work boot on the snowy ground, knocked off a now-lifeless foot. After collecting herself, she cracks open a bottle of whisky and pours it into a soda cup. Sipping profusely in order to ensure a failed breathalyzer test, both she and the viewer already know what fate awaits her.
In a sense, Cardinals gives the game away rather than having it unravel over the course of its running time. Its audaciousness lies in choosing to give us the sordid backstory: of a mother avenging her daughter’s sexual violation by murdering the assailant and using alcohol to effectively one-up the justice system—as soon as the film opens, vanquishing any sense of mystery that such a crime would provide your average pulp thriller. And it’s a risk that will not pay off to those expecting such things.
But if one pays close attention, it is clear that Cardinals is not trying to be that kind of film.
There’s No Going Back
Instead, Moore and Shipley are much more invested in the ruptures that upend the mythos of sleepy suburbia, where those bearing the mark of Cain find no peace from the stifling awkwardness of dealing with old friends. Where their lives can never return to a sense of normalcy, because the accusatory finger continues to point in their direction. Where there is an unspoken restlessness in the air, because it is tainted by the noxious cloud of blame and guilt that can never dissipate.
The difference between this film and, say, Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, is that we know without a shred of doubt that Valerie is guilty of a terrible crime. Her husband (Peter MacNeill) knows this, as does the daughter (Katie Boland) at the center of her life-changing decision. Someone else close to putting two and two together is the victim’s son, Mark (Noah Reid), and throughout the film he picks up the sticks and tries to set them straight, following the correct path and yet completely oblivious to the cardinal sin his father committed.
The culmination of his surreptitious sleuthing is a tense standoff that, in hindsight, is a bit too on the nose, but it does enough to show us the fissures that have been perforating tranquil Canadiana over the years since Valerie chose to take a life in service of another. It also forces us to view the situation from a balance of perspectives—from both the eyes of an innocent man who correctly surmises that his neighbor callously ran down his father in cold blood, as well as from the eyes of the woman who believed that her sin was no match for the trauma that her daughter was subjected to.
Humor and Heartbreak
As upsetting as the central tragedy may be, there are welcome respites from the tension. Valerie’s other daughter, Zoe (Grace Glowicki), is a picture of gawky amiability, guilelessly trying to repair the rift between her family and Mark while perpetually chomping down on a piece of gum. Glowicki is by no means a central player here, but the naturalism of her performance and her decision to create some breathing room whenever she appears is one of those small mercies that we come to count on when grim reality rears its ugly head.
Also a welcome presence is Valerie’s parole officer, Jonah (Peter Spence), a man of warmth and solicitude who appears too normal in the unbalanced world that Valerie now inhabits. And yet, this normalcy registers on the comic scale all the same. A great instance occurs late in the film, when he visits Valerie and brings over a few plates of leftovers from his wife’s soiree.
He offers the food to Valerie and her husband, casually telling them that he cannot eat any of it because he’s lactose intolerant. When Valerie’s husband says he is going to get some Chinese, Jonah requests some beef in black bean sauce, but waffles and then changes his mind. The mundanity of the exchange manages to prolong a crucial moment, yet Spence’s earnestness imbues it with an absurd bathos that provides some levity, keeping things grounded without forcing us to lose our interest.
Yet the star of the show is most certainly McCarthy herself. A feted talent in her home country, she is still an unfamiliar face internationally (unfortunately), and while Cardinals is probably not her ticket to instant stardom, it is still a mightily impressive high point in her career. In her hands, one can believe that Valerie was a fairly unremarkable person in the past, and that the crime she committed has produced a spotlight that she neither wants nor is used to.
The facades are purposely tenuous, the vulnerability and agitation an almost constant flicker in her weary face as the harsh light of Mark’s hostility bears down upon her. McCarthy fabulously weaves Valerie’s complex psyche into the subtlest of gestures, so that her character’s various facets can never be completely reconciled. Murderess, parolee, mother, ordinary human being: all present in McCarthy’s bearing, all folded into a face that is perpetually tired and sunken.
The economical efficiency of Cardinals is impressive. More impressive still is the way it traverses its fragile narrative with a confident understanding of its stakes, its stressors, and its emotional fecundities. Its slightness is both a blessing and a curse, as it does not give you as much to ponder over as more populated storylines do, but for a debut, it is more than successful.
What other films about small-town crimes and their ensuing consequences would you recommend? Let us know in the comments below!
Cardinals premiered in the Discovery programme of the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8th. Future release dates are unknown at this time.
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