Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
There’s a moment in childhood when everything is theoretically possible. Throughout our young lives, it is likely we are told at several points that we can do anything, be anyone, that the sky is the limit and we can make ourselves whoever we would like to be. In actuality, that moment comes much earlier than we are lead to believe. Though we will not become who we will eventually grow into until adulthood, the seeds are planted much, much earlier. Circumstances dictate many of our opportunities for us, and genes dictate much of the rest. Who we are is in some sense crystallized long before we even realize it. While we can change that fate, fight against what is written in our core, what we have learned, seen, and internalized in our youth will eventually harden into experience, decisions, and personality. That hardening is at the heart of Concrete Night, a gorgeous and heart-wrenching drama about the moment a boy’s possibilities narrow and he becomes what his upbringing made him.
That hardening is at the heart of Concrete Night, a gorgeous and heart-wrenching drama about the moment a boy’s possibilities narrow and he becomes what his upbringing made him.
Shot in crisp black and white, a chiaroscuro style that underlines the film’s nihilistic approach to maturation and decay, Concrete Night follows Simo (Johannes Brotherus), a 14-year-old boy, through a day and night that both change him and reveal him simultaneously. When we first meet him, Simo is a sponge, taking in the world around him, the good and the bad, not yet sure of himself enough to have developed a filter. In the opening shot, we watch Simo staring at himself in the mirror in a steaming bathroom, wiping away the steam to make himself clear, then letting the glass fog up again, letting himself become obscured in a world he does not yet understand. By the end of the film, there is no more steam in the glass of that mirror, and Simo sees who he actually is, confronting his own actuality head on.
From there, we are taken into Simo’s headspace, where he watches a train crash into the water and finds himself swimming in its sunken expanses. Water and light become powerful motifs throughout the film, each underlining in some way the immutability of nature and the impermanence of humans. Water flows, regardless of its source. Light illuminates, whether or not we like what it shows us. As Simo spends the day with his brother Ilkka (Jari Virman), who is about to begin a prison sentence and enjoying a last burst of freedom, we see the dark side of Simo’s ability to absorb what surrounds him. Ilkka has solidified; he has made his mistakes, chosen his bed, and is bitter but resigned to his fate. His nihilistic outlook seeps into Simo’s soul, changing him to his very core. Again and again, characters in Simo’s orbit return to the idea of mortality, not just of an individual, but of humanity as a species. Simo is told again and again that the time of man is brief, that human kind is about to go extinct, and that the world will be a cleaner, healthier, better place without the stain of humanity.
When bad things start happening, and they do, it’s easy to see how Simo might have come to believe in the world he is told again and again he finds himself in. Its easy to see how he might come to believe he deserves everything that happens, that evil and darkness are all that can possibly come out of humanity. Its easy to see how he might think we all, as a species, deserve what he thinks we have coming.
Director Pirjo Honkasalo renders this tale beautifully, emphasizing light and shadow in ways that remind us which is overtaking the other, and using sparse flashes of color to emphasize the dwindling possibilities Simo sees before him.
Director Pirjo Honkasalo renders this tale beautifully, emphasizing light and shadow in ways that remind us which is overtaking the other, and using sparse flashes of color to emphasize the dwindling possibilities Simo sees before him. Like Mud from earlier this summer, Concrete Night sees a large body of water as both a symbol of the passage between childhood and maturity and as a possible avenue of freedom for its central characters. Unlike that previous film, Concrete Night also insists that water has weight, and that the things that can set us free can also trap us, drown us, end us.
The performances here are uniformly stellar, conveying lifetimes in their silences, building words with only glances. Brotherus balances perfectly the wide-eyed wonder of a teenager excited and scared to be experiencing the adult world and the hopeless nihilism that can consume an adolescent at the drop of a hat. The world around Simo is ultimately in part what he makes of it, and Brotherus’ wounded vulnerability explains why he makes it such a dark and inhospitable place. Virman is also great as an older brother who is far younger than he likes to think, a man who believes he knows the world and laughs at what it offers him. He shows the world a callous exterior, but there’s a hidden hope in him he fears squandering at every step. As the boys’ mother, Anneli Karppinen is wizened enough to say what her children cannot: “I am who I am.” Simo does not understand who he is, even once he thinks he has learned; Ilkka thinks he is too hardened to be molded any further, but their mother, who tries to find love and who lies about going on holidays, understands her limitations all too well.
Concrete Night is a dark, cynical movie conveyed so gorgeously and artistically it never becomes too harrowing or unwatchable. Each shot is a work of art, and Honkasalo has a brilliant mind for framing and composition. She also utilizes the otherworldly score to perfect effect, and manages to elicit great, soulful work from all of her performers. Though the film is bracing in its realism, it is not afraid to engage in expressionistic sequences that get at deeper truths, both as viewpoints into the characters, and for us as viewers. It’s never too late, we tell ourselves, to change ourselves, to improve and become who we want to be. Concrete Night reveals that as a lie we use to comfort ourselves in the dark. Sometimes it is too late. But we make the choice. We can choose when we cement ourselves, when we become immutable, when we close ourselves to opportunities. We can each choose our own concrete night, and it is perhaps the most significant choice any of us ever make.
[notification type=”star”]83/100 ~ GREAT. Concrete Night is a dark, cynical movie conveyed so gorgeously and artistically it never becomes too harrowing or unwatchable.[/notification]