This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Brian Formo’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Now that it's out wide, I can say — while TÁR goes hard — I didn't want to go too hard on her in my initial review out of Venice. Many critics forget that we walked into the screening with only a teaser of Cate Blanchett blowing smoke while some lines from the movie (and brief images from the movie that weren't even in it) were overlayed. The movie doesn't say "cancel culture," "#MeToo," or "identity politics" or any of that; because the movie doesn't, despite engaging with them, I refrained from positioning the movie as so. TÁR slowly reveals a life that is in the balance through their own construction of hubris and malice. And the surprise of her malfeasance and manipulation of people is slowly shown in a very layered and textured movie. It's still well made going in knowing that Linda Tarr (her real name, as noted toward the end) will get canceled but it does remove the gray area that the movie dances in for most of the runtime. That's what's delicious. It's because of this that I think that the read of anyone who laughed or cheered at her Juilliard defense of Bach will get put in their place by the end — is simplistic.
This isn't a movie that wants to bend anyone to their view. If anything, I wouldn't be surprised if Todd Field agrees with some of what she's saying about Bach and attractive, female, Icelandic composers but not in the forceful way she is doing. You see, it's not a "cancel culture" movie. That would be a movie of the moment with easy, black-and-white characterizations, and every headline buzzword and viral tweet taking up massive plot points. It's much more nuanced than that. It wants to present a master manipulator and her team of enablers — her assistant and her wife — who would stay with her through more if they continued to get what they wanted from her: trust, council, and a place on the stage. It's very telling when Nina Hoss and Noémie Merlant exit stage left. There isn't a single hero in TÁR because there are no pure intentions. It navigates power and how the most powerful person in a space can think they are untouchable within it. But it is also people who want to be adjacent to power without being the center but they, too, have to engage with the power struggle to stay close enough to the action that they crave. And any attempt to stay close to such a manipulative force of nature means you won't come out clean either.
There are moments that only Tár knows, where she has nothing to gain and no angles to play, and she is a different person than her powerful construct. Such as when she tries to locate a screaming woman in park, or when she sticks up for her former neighbor by playing the accordion loudly during an apartment showing by a family that dumped their mother to die with a sister they hoped to disinherit. There are moments that reinforce her belief that she is a decent person. She isn't wracked by guilt by what's she's done — and the film lets us ultimately fill in what she's done to the extent that our own brains fill in extra from scandal headlines that withholds details — she is a narcissist. When she vomits in the street after being told to pick out a sex worker when she's there to get a massage she vomits not out of guilt, I'd say, but in how up front it is about being a transaction, which in no way reinforces her sense of self. (Please see Alexandra's brilliant note that it's girl number 5 that sets her off.) Her power moves were transactional but they provided a space for performance that reinforced her stature and talent. I'm sure she probably still viewed her liaisons with low level players as courtship and not a flex of power. She has been playing a game for a very long time. For dropping two letters in her birth name to a backwards accent to her studies in the Amazon as a way to impress big city philharmonics with an academic side they wouldn't understand. She is self-invented and therefore only carries a sense of her prestige and power into every room. To taking over a German orchestra with her lover and then providing for a car to reinforce the importance of the man that hired her. She is aware of legacy. And legacy is driven by narcissism.
On initial watch I thought that Olga was a plant. The way she turned on Lydia in New York and filmed her book talk was enough to make me wonder. It seems that she was recruited by Tár's assistant, Francesca, as a mutually beneficial gambit. Choosing Lydia's type (and now Francesca's assistant is not far removed from choosing a girl behind the glass at a massage parlor for her boss), instructing her to wear boots that will signal her to Lydia as they listen. (Women in orchestras have long worn non-audible shoes so as to not receive bias during the obscured test.) They are both playing a game of power in their own way: to bring down Tár so that her assistant could guest conduct but by doing this it would also place Olga as a member of the orchestra she wants to play in. Olga is not only Lydia's type, but she is safe to play the game, for her uncle has reserved her chair in the major Russian orchestra while she attempts to get on in Berlin. So if their gamble doesn't work, or only works for Francesca, then she has a safety exit. Francesca is also possibly up for promotion even without triggering Lydia's downfall. She leaks to the press the moment she is passed over. But through Francesca's sadness and fondness of looking back at the time she, Lydia, and the now deceased Krista, we get the sense that they were some type of trio of lovers. All groomed or in love with Lydia's charisma and power. Francesca has a place within whatever happened. And she's learned how to wield power but she doesn't get what she wanted out of this other than, maybe, out. To reinvent herself outside of Tár's shadow. But she is complicit. Krista is presented as something that Lydia has to be ahead of and someone that Francesca has chosen to replace for her own potential benefit. (Even though she misses and mourns Krista.)
This murkiness is why TÁR is a great film but also why I feel like it avoids our reductive language of cancel culture and metoo, etc. This is about power. And power is a constant tug of war of right, wrong, manipulation, and capitulation. It is like Raging Bull, a terrible person who was good at what they did who is reduced to a caricature and completely alone in the end.But that wasn't a cancel culture movie. That was a downfall. In Scorsese's film, he's a joke. And at the end of TÁR, too, she's a joke but still has time to reinvent herself from that moment onward. She's approaching it professionally and without shame.
Downfalls have been a part of theater and cinema ever since either existed. This is what Field wanted to make. A quest for unchecked power that crumbled the entire house. A character study of that for our times while leaving out our reductive headline language of our time. Because this is a tale as old as time. Buzzwords be damned. And every character here has gotten their hands dirty in their pursuit of adjacent power. But that central lightning rod was so insulated and separate that she felt untouchable. In the end, only two people actually get what they want from all of this, and they both had safety nets: Mark Strong's rich lawyer who wants to conduct from Lydia's book without doing his own work, and Olga, who could return to her chair in Russia any time she wants. The people with established safety nets, who have lower goals in their sights, they never lose.
A modern masterpiece. A timeless masterclass. So murky that Variety is writing horrified questions as to whether Field and Blanchett are hoping that the audience roots for her in the end. So believable that New York Magazine is sad that it isn't a biopic and questioning why they gave 3 hours of time to something that wasn't. Media literacy is at an all time low. And that includes labeling TÁR as a cancel culture movie within hours of its debut. "Canceled" people remain people after they're canceled. And they're still calculating how to get back. This is a full portrait of calculations, beyond Linda Tarr, but all around her.