Canadian films had big success at TIFF this month. In addition to two high profile American productions from Quebecois filmmakers (Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners and Jean-Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyer’s Club), there were also a number of high profile Canadian films that premiered at the festival; that is, films that were actually produced in Canada. Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, Michael Dowse’s The F Word, and Jonathan Sobol’s The Art of the Steal all premiered at the festival. All three of these films have a Canadian director, all three were produced with moderately large budgets, and all three are set, to some extent, within our borders. Yet none of these three films have a Canadian actor in a lead role.
The F Word, the most likely of these three to break out internationally, is a romantic comedy that pairs the British Daniel Radcliffe with the American Zoe Kazan (and throws in the American Adam Driver for some extra flare). Enemy stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a pair of doppelgangers, but also makes room for the French Melanie Laurent and the Italian Isabella Rossellini. The Art of the Steal, to be released across the country this week, stars Americans Kurt Russell and Matt Dillon, while making some room for the British Terence Stamp. So yes, these three films are “Canadian” in the technical sense of the word, but they also raise the question of whether or not Canada (specifically, English Canada) is capable of producing popular movies that don’t negate their country of origin.
It’s a tradition of the Canadian film industry to cast “ringers” (internationally recognizable stars) for local productions. Canadian films also have a tradition of denying their own nationality — my favourite example might be the Toronto of David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. The name of the city is brought up only once, by subtitle, after which the titular twin boys wander around their neighbourhood discussing sex and science in identical British accents. Jump to 30 years later and the twins have grown into identical gynecologists played by Jeremy Irons, who makes no attempt to disguise his British accent. The location of their upbringing, Toronto, is utterly inconsequential. The city is such an insignificant part of the story that it didn’t even motivate a cursory rewrite.
The Art of the Steal is another example of this typically Canadian denial of self, though a much less worthy one. While the word “Canada” is actually used in the film, the country is identified as more of a nuisance than an actual place where people live, breathe, work, and spend their lives. Literally, Canada is a nuisance, an obstacle of the plot that the characters have to overcome. The art smugglers of the film can’t get their stolen goods through the post-9/11 security of an American airport, so they have to drive it to Detroit via a Niagara Falls border crossing. No, the geography doesn’t make any sense, but neither does the rest of this film. Besides, no one wants to see a movie set in Windsor.
Kurt Russell plays Crunch Calhoun, “The Wheelman,” because, like most heist films, each member of the team is only allowed one skill and one personality trait. Crunch can drive a bike; his disposition is ornery. After a botched heist in Warsaw, his brother Nicky (Matt Dillon) gave him up to authorities, effectively sentencing him to five and a half years of Polish prison hijinks. Crunch has to swallow his pride for one big heist, in which the team needs to smuggle an original Guttenberg publication across the border. The team also includes a crotchety Irish mastermind (Kenneth Welsh), a French art forger (Chris Diamantopoulous), and “The Apprentice” (Jay Baruchel). The Apprentice (God knows his name isn’t important) is less of an actual character than a conduit for the audience; an excuse for Sobol to fill his scenes with endless expositional dialogue.
Despite, or maybe because of, the endless attempts at self-effacement (like casting recognizable Canuck actors as Irish, French, and Scottish characters), The Art of the Steal has some unmistakeably Canadian qualities: Sobol’s film has the aspirations of a slick globe-trotting caper flick, but its largest set piece happens at a miserable little border security hut. Of course these characters won’t rob the Louvre, this is a Canadian heist film. Like Toronto pining to be “world class” by comparing itself to New York, The Art of the Steal dooms itself by pining to be the kind of Hollywood production it could never be. Kurt Russell, (former) American movie star though he may be, is no George Clooney, and The Art of the Steal is no Ocean’s Eleven, or even Twelve.
Alan Jones writes about film for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @alanjonesxxxv.