Director: Karyn Kusama
Writers: Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi
Cast: Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Mike Doyle, John Carroll Lynch.
Karyn Kusama has had a bit of a hard time at the box office since her breakout directorial debut with the excellent Girlfight. That 2000 movie, which starred Michelle Rodriguez in her first ever role, managed to gain a lot of attention and accolades with a small budget story of a female latina boxer. Between then and this film, Kusama has only made two films: Æon Flux and Jennifer’s Body. The first film was a sci-fi adaptation of an animated television series starring Charlize Theron, which unfortunately didn’t do very well and wasn’t all that good anyways. The second film, written by the Oscar winning screenwriter of Juno Diablo Cody, tried to play with and juggle too many genres, topics, and styles resulting in a messy and uneven film, not without its charms, but not very good either. It looked as though Kusama would fall prey once again to the fate that befalls all female directors who don’t perform to blockbuster expectations (regardless of the movie) and disappear into oblivion, or into television directing, which, let’s face it, same same. Teaming up once again with the writers of Æon Flux (after having married one of them ten years ago), Kusama tries her hand at the horror genre, but this time the film is an overwhelming success.
The film’s cast is not unknown, but the closest it gets to starring a famous name is John Carroll Lynch, which viewers will likely recognize from American Horror Story, The Drew Carey Show, or some of his movies, most memorably Zodiac. Everyone else will more likely be recognizable, but you most likely don’t know their name. There’s that guy from Prometheus that looks a lot like Tom Hardy, that girl that was nominated for a couple of Tony awards, that girl who made that indie a couple of years ago directed by Ava Du Vernay, that guy from Game of Thrones that is sleeping with Khaleesi, the older sister of that girl that was on Roswell, and that other guy from Law & Order: SVU. This is a quite good showcase for all these actors who may become better known in the years to come, several getting a pretty good opportunity to showcase some talent, in what is a much better than expected thriller/horror that dares to break convention and switch things up.
Two years after losing his son in a freak accident involving a friend and a bat, Will and his new girlfriend are making their way to his former home on the Hollywood hills to attend a dinner party thrown by his ex-wife and her new partner, who have just returned to L.A. from Mexico, where they had disappeared without a word. On the way up, a distracted Will hits a coyote with his car and while his horrified girlfriend looks on, he must put the dying beast out of its misery with a tire iron. That is how the film begins, an aura of creepiness and impeding dread/doom lingering throughout, and the film manages to maintain this tone for over an hour. Once arrived at the home, Will sees that the other guests have already arrived, all his and his ex-wife’s friends, all together for the first time in years. The second he arrives, Will senses something he doesn’t like. His ex-wife’s partner is an ever-present source of threat, a friend who is conspicuously running late, and especially the presence of two outsiders all prevent Will from relaxing or having a good time. This intensity and build-up last longer than horror viewers are used to, it keeps us on the edge of our seat an incredibly long time and yet it does not grow stale, tired, or any less frightening. When something finally does happen it feels earned.
The film is an interesting study and exploration of grief and coping, and I was surprised by how well it managed to do so while still managing to be a thriller with horror vibes. From the distraught mother feigning happiness, to the father who cannot let go, the friends who have pulled away because of the discomfort of other people’s sadness, to the hangers-on feeding on sorrow to avoid their own – the film tackles all of these and they all feel really genuine.
Stylistically the film is equally impressive. One character leans forward in nearly every single scene, as if she is yearning for anyone, everyone, to comfort her, she is a vampire feeding on others, trying to steal their joy, for hers is just an act. Another character continuously seeks superiority and dominance, he stands when others are sitting, he speaks to the group from upstairs, he must control the locks of the house. A casual viewer of this film may not notice these little details, but altogether they blend and mold the viewing experience regardless, and together make for an excellently crafted film. Even the lighting is erie and disquieting, there is a brilliant play with perspectives and reflections. Kusama has once again found her voice and style and goes to town on this film, never going overboard, but declaring her artistry and obvious talent.
I watched the movie with two good friends, and we had three extremely different reactions. One friend hated the film so much that as soon as it ended he began yelling at the screen declaring it one of the worst films he had ever watched. His wife thought it was fine and was glad that something finally happened or she would have not liked it (she is notorious for disliking slow moving films or shows and has nicknamed Mad Men simply Boring Men). I absolutely loved it, was mesmerized the entire time, enjoying all the creepiness and tension build up. I strongly recommend the film and since I am the one writing this blog, I get the final say. The film is good!