It's been more than a decade since the Portland-raised writer-director Todd Field made a film. His debut feature, 2001’s acclaimed In the Bedroom, was a precise yet painful portrait of all-consuming grief. He followed that up with 2006's Little Children which—while less sharp than his first endeavor—showed that Field was a filmmaker with fortitude, whose fascination lies in the quiet details of flawed people.
Now, after nearly sixteen years of unrealized projects, Field is back with TÁR. It was worth the wait.
Running a whopping 153 minutes, Field's film can feel like an emotional endurance test doubling as a portrait of power and the subsequent fall.
The one falling is Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), who—in the world of the movie—is considered to be one of the best living composers. Lydia is building up to a book release and a live performance of Mahler’s fifth symphony. However, when we first meet her, she doesn’t have many people close to her, save for her dedicated assistant, Francesca.
Played by Noémie Merlant of 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Francesca does everything for Lydia from booking her flights to listing her absurdly gargantuan list of accomplishments for a New Yorker interview. We glimpse Francesca silently, yet almost scornfully, mouthing the words. It's an early sign from Field that this delicate yet cold world Lydia has built for herself may soon shatter in her hands.
Most centrally, TÁR is a character study. Or at least, a character study of the persona Lydia puts forth to the world. You see, Lydia is not just a person. She's a celebrity, a brand, and, most significantly, a figure to be idolized. Deeply protective of this image and the need to preserve it, she uses her musical knowledge as a weapon. In an extended opening sequence, she humiliates a student during a lecture at Julliard. The scene unfolds without cuts, giving us a full picture of just how caustic and cruel she can be. If there were any delusions about her being someone to aspire to, Lydia dashes them through sheer force of her arrogance.
Even as the film blows this open early on, the titanically good Blanchett never falls back on broad strokes. Instead, we see her take each simple scene and turn it into something more sinister. She ensures we understand how Lydia is cunning and hyperaware, even as she clings to her image.
Lydia is also highly critical of her partner Sharon (Nina Hoss), another member of the orchestra. The more we see the two interact, both at home and in the presence of others, the more we realize how much Lydia takes. Whispers about what she did to a former student become a roar, and a reckoning rushes in.
TÁR is Field’s most formally disciplined, ultimately enigmatic work to date. The first time we see Lydia conducting she's shot via a low angle, so she almost seems to tower. When she's struck by scattered nightmares—as well as persistent, unexplainable sounds—TÁR teeters on the edge of taking a full plunge into the experiential.
Some have described the journey TÁR takes us on as one about cancel culture: a phrase that can mean whatever one wants it to mean at this point, though this easy categorization feels far too neat and Internet-brained. A more apt comparison would be to 2014’s Whiplash, a film that explores ambition and power—though TÁR contains more humor and a willingness to poke fun at its central subject.
Without tipping off exactly what happens, those who stick out the two and a half hour film are treated to a final, fraught, and unexpected punchline. It cements. Field's tragicomedy uncovers the full picture of a unique figure in all her grim glory.
TÁR opens to a wide theater release starting Thurs Oct 20.