Arts Review, Good Day GTA, Movies

Philosophical Thrillers at TIFF: 'Ned Rifle' and 'The Vanished Elephant'

Philosophical Thrillers at TIFF: 'Ned Rifle' and 'The Vanished Elephant' featured image

Festival films often conflate genres, combining, for example, a black comedy with devastating family melodrama or a character study with a vampire plot. Two very enjoyable films at this year’s TIFF placed philosophical concerns into noir-inflected scenarios.


Javier Fuentes-Leon, a Peruvian director who got his Master’s degree in California, has created a complex thriller, The Vanished Elephant, which has premiered at TIFF. The film starts off simply enough: Edo Celeste, a mystery novelist, who is obsessed with Celia, his long-vanished fiancée, is forced by paid thugs into meeting Mara, a wealthy woman whose husband went missing the same day as Celia. Were they lovers? Neither Mara nor Edo knows.Edo has decided to “kill off” Felipe Aranda, his now famous detective, in the novel he’s writing—but other forces start to play havoc with his work and his life. He attends an art opening where a photographer is exhibiting images of an imagined Aranda—which Edo finds to be unnervingly accurate. The photographer has hired an actor to play Aranda and he turns out to be Mara’s long-gone husband.

Soon, a model who knows the fake Aranda is found dead by Edo and the cops start investigating. Edo finds a series of photos that can be formed into a large puzzle and seems to provide a clue to the disappearance of both Celia and Mara’s husband.

Things get stranger and stranger. Two police investigators who had always hated each other turn out to be lovers. And, just as suddenly, people start mistaking Edo for Aranda. Is he the writer or the apparently fictional detective?

The Vanished Elephant is a meta-detective story in which identity comes and goes in fantastic waves. Though there is an ending in the film that somewhat satisfies the multiple narratives that have been pursued throughout, this wonderfully confounding tale really is open-ended. Any number of answers could be fashioned to conclude the work. This is a film that is fun and frustrating—a festival flick that is unlikely to surface in theatres in Canada again.


Hal Hartley’s Ned Rifle is a likely candidate for a return engagement to Toronto. It’s the third part of a trilogy that New York Indie icon Hartley began with Henry Fool in 1997 and continued with Fay Grim in 2006. Ned (Liam Aiken), the titular character, is the son of Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan), a deliberately confrontational Bukowski-like writer and Fay (Parker Posey), a woman who became a radical terrorist, egged on by her somewhat crazed husband.Now 18, Ned leaves the witness protection program he’s been in. He wants to spend time with his mom, who is serving a lifetime in prison—and he wants to kill Henry, his dad. But his life and that of his family is crazily transformed by the arrival of Susan, a writer and theorist, who has written a doctoral thesis on Fay’s brother Simon Grim’s poetry and is commissioned to ghost-write Fay’s autobiography.

Soon, Susan and Ned are on the road, pursuing Henry for their own melodramatic motivations. Ned Rifle is nicely paced, funny and very much a thriller set among poets and academics.


Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical 96.3 FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

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