When we first meet Joseph and Joanne the young couple are returning from a trip to Hawaii. Joseph is a documentary filmmaker and Joanne studies medicine. When Joanne is out Joseph works away on a new documentary in his home studio. They are going to have their first child soon and while Joanne is very excited about this upcoming addition to their family and their life Joseph appears emotionally detached and distant. Soon though even little things begin to nag at Joseph and he becomes increasingly unsettled. While his wife sleeps he ventures out into Los Angeles late at night and starts to put himself and others in danger. Then there are the visions of an elderly Asian man with a camera that he keeps seeing. These precarious acts will spill over into the home and tumble into violence.
When we first wrote about Kasra Farahani’s film we noted that a large amount of the director’s time has been spent in art department of some of the largest tentpole productions in recent years. Knowing that there was an expectation that Tilt at the very least look good and to that it does not fail. From what I could tell Farahani makes use of only the natural light and that from the infrastructure of Los Angeles. Think of the lighting in Michael Mann’s Collateral and that it as close a comparison as I can make. It paints the city in a sickly glow. Hints about the path of the narrative exist in the scenery as well, be they magnets on the fridge or graffiti on the walls of underpasses. An astute eye will pick these up and make sense of them as the story goes along
Tilt is a slowburn thriller and a character study, of a person already struggling with mental health challenges who comes under further distress as he loses his sense of authority and control over his life. Joseph already senses that he is losing his place in his home but is trying to set aside his project so that his wife may keep up her medical studies. With the baby on the way more attention is drawn to a sonogram and no one seems as interested in his documentary or his discoveries while he has been working on it.
To a greater extent his work on this film challenges his place in culture. As his work continues it begins to tear down the walls protecting the ingrained Western sense of safety on the homefront. Setting this story against a backdrop of the U.S. election campaign of 2016, and what the World is watching on the news every single night then and now, what everyone thought was America appears to be gloss left over from the post war dream, from a generation that painted over that post-war hurt with a slick coat of patriotism and pre-fab identity.
Of course this journey, this slow descent, would not work if it were not for the terrific job carried out by Farhani’s lead Joseph Cross. In a performance that demands emotional ranges from subtle inflections of hurt emotions to outright explosions of anger and violence Cross navigates his namesake’s journey to achieve a chilling effect.
Near the end of the film Farhani adds a ‘clip’ from Joseph’s earlier film, the titular Tilt, about pinball culture. In the ‘raw footage’ Joseph tells a story about the man who saved pinball in New York in 1976. This man proved that pinball machines were not a game of chance (true story, really) and that you could ‘control the chaos’ of the game. By predicting his shots and proving his theory the city would lift the ban. Joseph tries to do the same however fails right away, he cannot control the chaos, and in his frustration swats the camera away.
Seen in hindsight it is a statement from the director that Joseph’s condition goes back further than the story initially implies. When even the smallest things like a uncooperative vacuum hose or a tiny branch on a cactus can set Joseph off what hope is there that he can cope with the larger issues that come with living the normal life?