Festival films usually start hitting the rest of us around now, those harder-to-find-flicks from the previous year’s Sundance and Cannes festivals. Usually we get to see things we’ve spent almost a year hearing about, getting excited for, or being curious to see. There is almost always a fluctuation in quality and content, from those that are contemplative to those containing social commentary to those that just want to deal with visceral, raw, bleeding meat. Once in awhile we get something that tries to combine some of these things, a film that tries to reach for more.
Nicolas Pesce has put out a really interesting little film.
I call it little because of the scope, but it came across as a very dark and heavy piece of work. This is not as small of a film as it might seem; indeed this is more a piece of art than a story you’ll remember as a classic. I don’t know if I enjoyed this, but I’m very glad I saw it.
Cannibalism, torture, sexual assault, and brutal violence all play a part in the film at points. A bathtub beating, surgeries, and chains all show up in the display of loneliness the film manages to create tonally. Kiki Magalhaes is a commanding presence in her quiet panic as Francisc
a. She is dainty, she is strong, and she is powerful. There’s not a moment of her onscreen presence that is anything less than gripping but she manages to be delicate and even sort of adorable in moments. When she eats it is very bird-like and sweet, a little smile playing on her face as she enjoys the fruits of her labor.
You just have to forget what she’s eating. For that matter forget what anyone is eating.
A face some might recognize is that of Will Brill, who plays Scott Brown on Netflix’s series The OA. He does not get a lot of recognizable screen time in this but what he has is uncomfortable and rather frightening. We are so often presented with gross-out cinema, brutality, and killers that when it is presented the way Brill does we sort of roll our eyes and groan, desperate to avoid yet another trip down Michael-Meyers-Lane. While the character is a cliche, his execution of it is not and his work in the middle section of the film is all of disturbing, creepy, pathetic, and exciting all at once. It takes a lot to accept the limitations of performance that he is given and still manage to turn out what he does and I, for one, found it very impressive.
While we get fascinating performances, it’s hard to call any of them the true star of the film when the director is so present. Pesce does a lot of interesting things with the camera here. I won’t lie, you can see several of his influences in the placement and control of the shots, from Fincher-esque long shots to Aronofsky-like POV moments and even things similar to Polanski, the hallway shot fleeting but present. Many tripod still-cam positions are used, making those shakier moments that feel immersive feel all the more personal. The visual aesthetic is definitely that of an independent art film, but it suggests a larger ability to use mostly visuals to tell a story. We had some wonderful examples of “show, don’t tell” as a concept in 2016 and this appears to have been up there with the best of them. Even when he allows motion and rocking of the camera we still get to see that it is part of a film. When dragged across the lawn on a tarp, focused on an unconscious body, we still feel very much that we are seeing a part of a story instead of being involved and sometimes this is a good thing.
A note on the score: it’s sparse. More audio is given to the sounds of the homestead the family lives on, the rustling of dead leaves and grass or the sound of a fire crackling. There are little moments of music but even that is mostly records playing, the Portuguese family listening to music in their native tongue with pops and cracks in the speakers that match the sounds outside. It’s wonderfully atmospheric, just don’t expect a score you’ll be listening to for days on end.
I had to let this marinate for a bit to decide what I really thought about it. As the credits rolled I sank further into my seat and muttered, “What the hell did I just watch?” Pesce’s film has stuck in my brain for two days now, managing to not only leave me disturbed and uncomfortable but also leave me considering loneliness as a concept, wondering what stress and isolation can do to a person. The gothic setting builds on this so much, the homestead and woods a character unto themselves and it all ties together wonderfully.
I won’t say this is a great film. I don’t even know if it would be a wonderful one, but this is certainly a good one and worth watching. Just the fact that it sticks with you so solidly and for so long is a testament to the staying power of the story, and the performance by Magalhaes is powerful. If you get the chance to see this I recommend you take it. I’m very grateful I was given the opportunity to see it.