Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Movie Review: Goodnight Mommy/The Wolfpack (2015)

I’ve brought up the horror rule of what we don’t see is always scarier before, but I haven’t really delved into why it works as well as it does. As much as Hollywood may provide evidence to the contrary, everyone in the human race has an overactive imagination; add to that the unfortunately ingrained fear we have of anything that is unknown or different and you have a person already primed for overthinking. Time for a little thought experiment: Grab Johnny Everyman and throw him into a small room. Tell him that there is someone on the other side of the door and that it is locked. Leave the room and watch the magic begin. As time passes, the possibilities go through his mind: Is it a friend or a foe? Is it someone he knows or is it a complete stranger? Is the door locked to keep the other person out, or is it meant to keep Johnny inside? What would happen if he opened the door? What would happen if he didn’t? Long story short, there’s a reason why ambiguous endings are still being used in films today: We think a lot more about things that are left up to interpretation. With this main idea about uncertainty and what is done in response to it, let’s look at today’s Austrian-born subject… and no, it doesn’t involve getting to da choppa. This is Goodnight Mommy.

The plot: After their mother (Susanne Wuest) comes home from getting cosmetic surgery done on her face, her twin sons Elias (Elias Schwarz) and Lukas (Lukas Schwarz) begin to notice that she is acting a little differently that she did before; meaner and colder. As time goes on, they begin to find evidence to suggest that this woman who has come to their home might not be their mother. Question is, how are they doing to find out?

The atmosphere is quite possibly the tensest of any film I’ve seen this year, particularly in terms of its sound. There’s a lot of grinding, crunching and thudding to be had, all of which lands with a very hefty impact on the audience’s ears, but in a good way. Probably the creepiest moment with that in mind is when the twins delve into a small cavern where they find a cat, with every single footstep sending an equal chill down the spine thanks to the sound and the realization of what they are walking on. Speaking of which, another cool yet mysteriously unnerving scene comes right at the start as the twins walk on rocks that ripple the ground. It gives chills because of just how bizarre and unnatural it looks. Outside of its sound environment, the actors all give an air that something is definitely askew in their house, which is so sterile as to infect the mind with that impression even further.

What makes this hit even harder is that, for the most part, it’s not entirely clear who is in the right. The mother is acting suspicious and does come across like she’s hiding something, but on the other hand the twins are a little quick to jump to conclusions and don’t act all that rationally either. For the first act, the effectiveness of every drawn-out scene comes from the uncertainty of it all from the children’s point of view. At that age, when something drastically changes about someone that close to you, you aren’t necessarily equipped to deal with it. As such, that need for answers can let that young mind astray, especially if there’s reasonable doubt. Then the second act comes along… holy hell, make sure you have a change of pants nearby. What was before very psychological takes on a more visceral tone, resulting in the kind of dread that has unfortunately lead to the naming (and shaming) of certain horror films as “torture porn”. However, rather than it just being the fact that the torture is happening, and being done very well both in terms of how much is actually shown as well as the effects themselves, it cuts deeper because that air of ambiguity is still being pumped into every frame of this film. Yeah, what gets done with Super Glue is quite disturbing, but we still don’t know by the time it’s being used whose side we should be on, if any.

The acting is damn good, with both Wuest and the Schwarz twins keeping the audience guessing as to what exactly is going on. Wuest, through the minimal exposition we do get about her at the start, plays the subtle tragedy of her faded stardom well and the twins show that sense of youthful curiosity and naivety in ways that reach new levels of kid creepy. Beyond them, and the voiceless extras, the only other characters are the two collectors for the Red Cross. It is here that we reach the big problem with the film. Sure, the slow pace can get a little too slow at times, but these two characters are all kinds of pointless to the overall narrative. Not only does their involvement in the main plot make no sense (unless charity collectors just go into houses when apparently no-one is home in Austria), their contribution to said plot is minimal at best aside from giving some mild suspense about what is going in the house being found out. Said suspense is perfectly fine, but not worth adding a needless cliché into the mix.

The best horror films that work on psychological scares are at their best when they are actively making the audience question the film’s reality. For instance, back in Oculus, it was from wondering exactly how much of what was being shown was actually happening. Here, it comes from whose reality should be questioned and how much of it. Hell, I’d even recommend watching this more than once because this is one of those films where past events definitely make more sense on repeat viewings… for the most part. This is the double-edged sword when it comes to the trippier horror flicks out there, where re-watching also runs the risk of making less sense, considering there are a few plot details that don’t add up once the ending comes around. Sure, for the first run-through, it is satisfying and chairarm-clutching, but then other things sink in and it begins to unravel.

All in all, if you want some genuine chills that don't involve far-too-frequent jump scares and gratingly annoying characters, look no further. This film pretty much embodies the golden rule of the unseen, as pretty much everything here is rooted in that guideline and, as a result, it all manages to drive up the suspense. This might be the first time that a film has legitimately sounded scary, and it only gets thicker with tension the further down you go. It ranks higher than Bridge Of Spies, as the characterization isn’t nearly as heavy-handed in this film. However, in terms of overall entertainment, the head-scratching nature of the plot makes it lose in comparison to The Book Of Life, in spite of that stupid framing device (and no, I’m still not quite over that yet).

Whenever I get asked exactly why I dedicate as much time to these reviews as I do, I basically break it down to a feeling of obligation. Not only am I giving back to a critical community that helped make me the person I am today, I am also giving back to an art form that has shaped a surprising amount of my personality. My sense of humour, my views of religion, politics, the news, society as a whole, even the way I interact socially with others; I can pinpoint every film where those sensibilities came from for me. It is primarily for this reason that I promote the idea of subjectivity in this field of expertise, because films can affect people in ways that aren’t exactly quantifiable. When I sat down to watch Schumacher’s Falling Down for the first time not that long ago, no one would be able to predict that it would forever change how I look at real-world news stories. Of course, that’s not to say that being babysat by Uncle TV is ideal for the entirety of a child’s upbringing. We are still humans that require interaction with other humans without a screen between them. To illustrate both of these points about how much cinema can teach and questions about how much it should teach, we have today’s subject; easily one of the most intriguing documentaries I’ve come across. This is The Wolfpack.

The plot: In the Lower East Side of New York City lives the Angulo family, made up of the mother, father, six brothers and their sister. For the majority of their lives, the siblings weren’t allowed outside of their apartment, under the rules of their Hare Krishna-following father. The only information they knew about the outside world came from the family’s sizeable film collection: If they aren’t watching movies, they’re re-enacting them for their own entertainment. However, all of that changes when the eldest sibling Mukunda breaks out of their home and experiences that outside world first-hand.

Right off the bat, the subject matter is absolutely astonishing… although it does bring up certain questions considering exactly how isolated the siblings are. Not to say that there aren’t answers for such questions, namely how they were discovered in the first place; it’s that they aren’t explained in the film proper. Under normal circumstances, this honestly wouldn’t be that big a problem, but when dealing with something this isolated, that question needs to be brought up. When I looked at Citizenfour earlier in the year, if Laura Poitras didn’t explain in-film that Snowden contacted her directly and that’s how the documentary came about, it wouldn’t have made as much sense that the footage was obtained to begin with. However, even with that in mind, this is an enthralling watch solely on the basis of its subject matter. Even if you don’t spend far too much alone watching films and not enough socializing (*cough*), their hesitance when it comes to the new social opportunities the outside world offers should still be familiar to most audiences; it’s like Adolescence 2.0.

As we learn more about the brothers, their living conditions and their love for cinema, the film takes on both a quasi-mystical and tragic tone. We see their passion for the art form, their re-enactments of The Dark Knight and Reservoir Dogs and, honestly, it’s pretty cool to watch. It’d be pretty hard to argue that people don’t learn an awful lot early on from the films and TV shows they watch, even on a subconscious level. Also, it kind of appeals to my inner geek seeing how much respect these guys have for Tarantino, Nolan and David O. Russell. Where it gets tragic, and more than a little frightening, is when it gets into the hows and whys of their living conditions. In no uncertain terms, it’s almost like a film cult, given the want of their parents to keep the children away from ‘outside influence’ and how they learnt most of what they know from movies. Even with how funny it initially is seeing them all dressed up and dancing to This Is Halloween, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t become harrowing when put into the context of their upbringing.

This is the work of not only a first-time documentary maker but first-time filmmaker full stop, and it shows. I still maintain that documentaries work best the less polished they look, which is definitely needed here given the surreality of the premise, but at times the camera work can stretch even that justification. There are times when it is used to great effect, like the overexposed lighting when re-enacting Mukunda’s first time outside, but elsewhere it just features a lot of out-of-focus shots and wonky framing. Not to say that this looks terrible, as it looks reasonable enough under the circumstances; just that this would probably end up on the lower end of the spectrum in terms of ghetto documentary creation. There’s also the matter of, alongside not establishing the real-world connection between director and subject, not really having much of an arc. It has a definite naturalistic approach where it only shows what is given without any real exaggeration (far as can be told, at any rate), but there isn’t any real path that the events we see end up taking. The closest we get to a mile marker is the revelation that these brothers are now spending more time in the outdoors, but otherwise we are just seeing things happen. Apart from Crystal’s contributions, the homemade renditions of the titular Wolfpack’s favourite movies is very entertaining. In fact, it kind of brings up weird questions in terms of who is able to act better: Professionals who ‘apparently’ spent years learning the craft, or these siblings who learnt everything as they went along. As someone who has no formal training in film theory, yet continually pretends to know what he’s talking about, it was an interesting idea to see.

All in all, even considering the amateurish production values and the numerous hanging questions the film raises, this is still an incredible look at a true stranger-than-fiction story. It is at once heart-warming, enlightening, tragic and disturbing, sometimes all at once, creating a cinematic experience that perfectly encapsulates the different sensations that probably influenced the Angulos into their own fandoms. It’s better than The Martian, as this doesn’t have any real cheesiness to conflict against the film’s strengths. Yeah, I maintain that that film was cheesy done right, but even I admit that it got a bit much at times. However, in comparison to another film that shows reimaginings of older stories as well as what cinema is capable of, it falls short of Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth.

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