The British director Steve McQueen is both a master formalist and a gifted connoisseur of human suffering. Whatever you may think of his films “Hunger” (2008), “Shame” (2011) and “12 Years a Slave” (2013) individually, it’s hard not to appreciate them collectively as a trilogy on the body and soul in states of extremis, on the ways a human being can be abused, imprisoned and driven beyond the point of despair.
If McQueen’s compassion has often felt checked by a degree of sadism, it may stem from the severity of his visual style, a diamond-hard aesthetic of precisely framed compositions that has the curious effect of both exalting and mocking his characters’ suffering. There’s great beauty in his filmmaking, but the director makes sure that his audiences and his characters pay a steep price for every last drop of it.
The importance of paying one’s debts, even the ones you didn’t ask for, is the driving force behind McQueen’s gripping, corrosive and superbly acted new heist movie, “Widows,” which had its world premiere Saturday night at the Toronto International Film Festival. After the sobering dramatic rigors of his Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave,” McQueen’s first out-and-out thriller — you could even call it his first out-and-out entertainment — feels like a departure in many respects, though it might be better understood as a progression.
Let it be noted that the key line in the swooning pop-rock melodrama “A Star Is Born” isn’t spoken, or sung, by either Lady Gaga or Bradley Cooper. It’s delivered by a hardened music-industry veteran played by a soulful Sam Elliott (is there any other kind?), who points out that all music is essentially a series of variations and interpretations on the 12 notes of a scale.
“It’s the same story told over and over,” he says. “All the artist can offer the world is how he sees those 12 notes.” He could, of course, be describing the movie he’s in, and perhaps offering a preemptive defense for those inclined to knock remakes on principle.
“A Star Is Born,” which marks Cooper’s directorial debut, is the latest gloss on a timeless Hollywood tragedy first told in the 1937 film starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, and then rekindled, gloriously, in 1954, with Judy Garland and James Mason. A 1976 version starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson relocated the love story of a rising actress and a fading, hard-drinking movie star to the music biz, which is where Cooper’s version picks up.
There were a fair number of “oohs” and “aahs” at the Toronto opening-night premiere of David Mackenzie’s “Outlaw King” on Thursday — not for the movie, which hadn’t started yet, but for the bright and shiny new Netflix logo that preceded it. Rather than the familiar white screen and jarring musical thunderclap — you know, the one that immediately puts you in a living-room state of mind — the movie kicked off with a more artful, discreet treatment, simply positioning the red letter “N” against a black screen.
It’s a sign that the streaming giant, a formidable presence here at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, might be trying to distinguish its workaday product from its prestige fare. It’s also an acknowledgment, deliberate or not, that “Outlaw King” belongs on the big screen and nowhere else. An unofficial sequel to “Braveheart,” the film stars an excellent Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce, the Scottish warrior-king who effectively took over for William Wallace in casting off the shackles of English rule.
It’s been a while since a picture actually spurred me to think “They don’t make ’em like this anymore,” which I mean less as an index of quality than a simple acknowledgment of “Outlaw King’s” size and scale, the lavish on-screen evidence that no expense was spared. Gorgeously filmed on location in Scotland with an enormous ensemble — the standouts include Stephen Dillane as the viciously calculating King Edward I, Billy Howle as his feckless but monstrous son and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as one of Bruce’s most loyal allies — the movie is a juicy slab of cinematic red meat, a symphony of mud, blood and viscera set to a soundtrack of thundering hoofbeats and howls of vengeance.