2012 Toronto International Film Festival Review: Thale

This year I attended the Toronto Film Festival, and watched the world debut of the movie Thale. Thale tells the story of a pair of crime scene cleanup guys in Norway (whom I shall name "Liam Neeson" and "not Liam Neeson", for semi-obvious reasons), who show up at a house where evidence of a cold case was discovered...while cleaning, they uncover a dark secret that the now-deceased resident was holding: in his basement he had tortured and imprisoned a young girl. As they wait for the police to return, they discover...the girl is still alive, kept in a respirator inside a bathtub.

Thale is a hard movie to review, partly because it defies plot description. It's like reviewing Lucky Number Slevin I suppose: in order to properly convey what the movie is like, you have to give away huge parts of the plot and spoil a lot of the shock and surprise for the reader. Alternately, you can skim through the plot points and give a half assed review that barely touches over anything substantial about the movie.

I guess you can scroll down this review of see that I wrote enough to fall firmly into the later category: if you don't want to learn the details and the mystery and the dramatic tension present in Thale before you see it, you should probably go down to the next blogpost. I promise it will be exciting and dynamic and probably feature me attacking President Monkey for something.

Anyways, Thale is an interesting but occasionally disjointed mess: not Liam Neeson isn't actually a crime scene cleanup guy, he's a friend(?) of Liam Neeson, brought into the sick world of cleaning up blood splatter and littered entrails and torn flesh long after the CSI guys have gone home. He's not very good at it, throwing up profusely. More critically, after they get to the main crime scene he's notoriously bad at disturbing things even though it's pretty clear that he's being told not to do so and the horrible consequences thereof. This is a man in his 30s for crying out loud, not some 9 year old kid who has issues with doing what he's told. You have to figure if you're going to crime scenes after the fact the police expect you to stop and get out if you find anything serious worth reporting. Liam Neeson, of course, also waits way too long to get the real cops in there. He may not realize there is a ticking clock present (we'll get to that later) but still, things are quickly exposed as very very very bad and not something two idiots should be getting into.
Regardless, not Liam Neeson explores and discovers the weird underground lair: an old cassette player has been recording for years and never stopped, there are photos and organs in jars and creepy bloody tools everywhere. There's a safe which of course is unlocked and a bunch of weird pipes going into a tub. As Liam Neeson goes out to get a better signal (I assume) not Liam Neeson messes with the stuff far more than he should have....and then he unleasehs Thale.

When she escapes from the tub, we can see pretty quickly that she's the infamous tortured girl. Not Liam Neeson figures the smartest thing he can do is try playing all the old torture tapes for her: Liam Neeson on the other hand just tells the cops to hurry up...but something mysterious is watching him from the bushes. At this part of the movie, we're exploring strange things about this girl: they find a long weird tale in the safe, they get odd sensations and flashbacks from her life when they touch her, and she seems to know about whoever is watching them from outside.

Creepy old dead Norwegian guy on the tape is talking about why she needs to be kept safe, and it turns out she's....not human. Playing the role of Mr. Exposition, the dead guy (who was killed, probably by the sisters but that's never 100% clear) talks about how millions of years ago humans broke into two species: homo sapiens (that's us: well, you at least, I'm no homo) and....oh, well I guess they never came up with a cool Latin name for what Thale is, though the promotional material explains that they are called sirens in Norway and are absolutely not trolls even though they have tails just like trolls have tales. Anyways, this movie isn't about trolls, it's about sirens, who I'm guessing the target audience (Norwegians) understands. In a way it feels like I'm feeling what a Somali blogger would face if he was reviewing The Don Cherry Story: they have to explain so much that what I'm dealing with that its hard to really bite into the movie as a movie.

So when Thale and her sisters were younger, creepy old Norwegian guy rescued them, or captured them, or rescued Thale, or captured Thale, or something. He decided to raise Thale like a normal girl rather than a siren, tussling her hair and clothing her and giving her dolls and a bed and all sorts of nice things like that. Meanwhile, inexplicably her sisters remained wild and feral and evil and camped out in the woods by their house. Since the sisters can sense each other's presence and constantly were trying to kill Thale or creepy old Norwegian guy or something again that isn't really explained, they had to hide in the bunker. But eventually the sisters would find them, so ultimately Thale was put into the respirator unit, dropped into the tub of milk, and hidden from the world.

I am left assuming that the tub of milk is what made Thale look human, because her siren relatives most certainly were not: they looked like the creatures from District 9 meets Gollum. After stalking Liam Neeson for a spell they successfully attack the bunker and decapacitate the cleaning crew with their evil spirit breath. Or something.

Okay a brief pause here: why did the sisters not enter the lair before today? Yes I know they can usually sense Thale and were able to attack as soon as she was out of the tub. But the sirens seem pretty powerful and amazing, so its not like they really had to be scared of creepy old Norwegian guy. We can assume they are at least moderately intelligent (seeing how Thale seems at least somewhat intelligent, but to be fair we`ve never heard her talk: creepy old Norwegian guy talked to her, but I've talked to plants and animals and even NDP supporters before, it doesn't necessarily mean they're intelligent), and they clearly already live in the woods right by the cabin, so why haven't they already found Thale? When you kill the creepy old guy or see him die or stop seeing him around, and you stalk the house and can sense your sister but haven't sensed her in a while, maybe it's time to do a little bit of exploring? Not Liam Neeson found her within a matter of minutes, and he wasn't aware she existed to be found. As the guys succumb to the evil gypsy breath curse, the movie goes off the rails. I'm sorry: it was sort of interesting and engaging to this point, but then things went crazy with a capital-K:

Not Liam Neeson wakes up tied to a chair out in the woods. Some evil governmenty/corporatey villainous guys with guns are there, and they've put bags over our heroes' heads and are explaining to us what the gypsy breath curse is all about, and now we learn that there's a big conspiracy out to...do something..to the sirens. Find them or kill them or capture them or something. Or is it just Thale? It sounds at first like the siren sisters in the woods are their employers, but then the siren sisters kill all the conspiracy guys and they are never seen or heard from or thought about every again! And they leave the two cleaning guys...why? Well, I guess so we can have the happy ending. Thale eventually comes and rescues them, and oh by the way Liam Neeson has cancer and some weird glow makes him feel better. Then she's gone, and they're at the police station filling out a report, and the report even mentions the siren possibility so obviously the conspiracy is neither powerful nor something to fear.

Okay, now I have a quick Toronto International Film Festival question: are we always seeing these movies how the director intended? Is this the film that is made before executive meddling and focus groups and all that jazz? Does Scott make a play for Meeka and fail in the Vatican in this version? Does Salt wind up captured in prison?
I ask because at this moment the movie seems to go somewhere totally different: in spirit and tone as well as direction. We cut to some new talk from creepy old Norwegian guy about Thale's need to be with her own kind and find love. Liam Neeson`s cancer is cured. And Thale is shown walking in with the rest of the sirens, who for some reason all know and accept her. It really makes no sense in the context of what creepy old Norwegian guy had done up until this point of the film. He'd seemed to do everything within his power to turn Thale from a siren into a human, and that would assume having her spend time with humans and live as a human and all the sort of things that he was seting her up for. So was this added in because of focus groups? Executive meddling? Or was this always their idea, and this is just another disjointed idea in the spirit of the conspiracy guys?

So at the end Thale is walking out with the other creepy siren monsters, the guys are...same and sound and happy, and the conspiracy guys are what conspiracy guys I don't have a clue what you were talking about.

The acting was fairly decent in Thale, the Liam Neeson actor wasn't as good as early Liam Neeson but he isn't as bad as late Liam Neeson either. Not Liam Neeson wasn't as good, but he was competent enough, as was Thale. She's good at smiling, but I think the nuances of the character were basically abandoned and left empty. Thale as a young girl actress is actually far better at conveying the character. The other actors don't apper enough for us to even know or care about their performances. The direction is good and the editing pretty well paced: the film flirts briefly with being a horror or a thriller during the discovery of the lair.

In the end though, Thale is a mess where the writing wants to explore numerous concepts without developing them fully, and introducing plot elements and layers without setting them up or ultimately paying them off. If this does go through a focus group before you see it in theatres, maybe that wouldn't be a horribly bad thing.


And now for a word about the Toronto International Film Festival itself: it's my first time attending, and I think the big mistake I made was attending the second weekend: by then, all the celebrities had left Toronto for better places to be: like Baghdad. The airing of Thale I attended wasn't really a TIFF event by that point: I paid $24 to watch a movie. And I don't like paying $11. The writers and producers and directors had already headed home, so the Q&A events that were the key draw of TIFF didn't happen. I understand this took place for most of the movies: Ben Affleck wasn't attending every showing of Argo by the end of the second week. Angelina Jolie wasn't posing for cameras by then either. It was a film festival without stars by the time I attended.

The TIFF website is also a little low on some of the 'around town' details: where do you go to see the festival itself? I was able to find little tidbits here and there: Robinson Hall was where Oprah apparently went, and that's where you could get your photo taken in front of the TIFF background like you were a big celebrity (I did too, but then of course I am a big-ish celebrity). It would be nice for some sort of guide letting people know where they could partake of this awesomeness. TIFF is supposed to lure in the out-of-towners, that's easier to do when they have some remote idea of what they can be doing for the festival and where. It's a shame to see the Jasper in January festival do a better job at this.