Monday 5 March 2018

Winchester (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), after the death of her husband, has inherited his firearms company. She has become convinced that the victims of her husband's weapons are now haunting her, building expansions to her already-illustrious estate house in order to capture them. As her fellow employers start to wonder about her sanity, they send in doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to assess her mental state and whether she is fit to continue running the company. However, soon after arriving, it seems that things aren't so simple as just declaring her insane.

Mirren looks suitably haunted as the cursed heiress, and she handles her dialogue rather well. Clarke gets a few awkward laughs out of his performance as the drug-assisted doctor, but he manages to break through that wall of possible tone-deafness by absolutely nailing the more tragic aspects of his character. Sarah Snook… okay, right from seeing her in Predestination, I’ve been watching this woman’s filmography like a hawk, just waiting for that opportunity for her to show that utter brilliance I saw in her portrayal of the Unmarried Mother. Even when paired back up with the duo that gave her that chance to shine, she still only comes out of this as decent. She holds up well alongside her fellow cast and she gets a very solid moment of sheer feminine strength during the finale, but I think I’m going to have to come to terms with the fact that Predestination was likely a fluke. Kind of fitting, for a film all about letting go of the past. Finn Scicluna-O’Prey is okay as the child who spends most of the film possessed, Angus Sampson is amazingly miscast and that accent never manages to sound natural from him, and Laura Brent as Eric’s wife serves as a good linchpin for the film’s single most emotional scene.

Knowing the narrative gymnastics the Spierigs pulled in Predestination, managing to take what is ostensibly a single character and flesh him/her out to the nth degree, it’s little wonder that the characterisation in this film is as good as it is. Part of the film’s charm is how it doesn’t take itself entirely seriously, meaning that the rather affable reactions we get out of Eric traipsing around The House That Spirits Built don’t end up affecting the film’s overall tone.
However, that’s not to say that the film is all yucks. Quite the contrary as, between Eric, Winchester and who ends up being the big bad of the film, there’s plenty of tragedy to go around. Eric is made out as the sceptical observer, both in and out of the film’s universe, and as the film carries on, we see just how… intimate he is with the idea of death. Adding to this, we have Winchester, brandishing guilt over the lives her company’s products have taken like a bandolier, trying to give the dead some semblance of peace as the least that she can do. Watching them bounce off of each other, managing to equal each other in wit and rather effective poignancy, is what essentially holds this film together. Considering the stakes, these two hold up the fort admirably.

Since we’re dealing with a film all about guns and the violence they carry out, I would feel amiss if I didn’t point out a certain relevancy in the time that it came to cinemas. Then again, such a statement would be implying that stories like this would ever lose relevancy, since I’m fairly certain it would’ve had the same effect regardless of when it eventually came out. The way this film deals with violence and murder and even revenge, all through the iron sights of a Winchester Repeating Rifle, it shows a definite understanding of grief and catharsis that tend to go hand-in-hand with that ultimate fate. 
Knowing how often Australia gets brought up in gun control discussions, as this country has had gun reform laws in place for over 20 years, it makes a little too much sense that two Aussies would churn out a story like this. It also makes too much sense that they would tell it with this much salience, admitting that the tragedies attached to those rifles are indeed tragic but also tragedies that people tend to cling onto. The film’s script taps into similar notions of unfinished business and letting the dead rest that are rather commonplace for this type of ghost story, but through its connection to a real-life setting with real-life consequences, it actually makes for a rather nice addition to the conversation.

However, there’s kind of a major problem with all of this. You may have noticed that, up until just now, I haven’t referred to this as a horror film. The reason why is rather simple: Similar to Before I Wake from last year, this works far better as a supernatural drama than as horror. Part of that is down to the visuals, which never really manage to establish a suitable atmosphere for a house with this kind of legacy behind it. Frequent Spierig collaborator Ben Nott definitely brings some great cinematography to the proceedings, showing off the Winchester house in all its perplexing detail, but that never ends up translating into making the place something to be scared of. Or even making the occupants something to be scared of, quite frankly.
The bigger reason, though, is the persisting tone of the film. It spends a lot of time delving into altered perceptions and hallucinations and basically anything that could give the characters plausible deniability once the actual ghosts turn up. However, in all that space, the best we get is maybe one or two decent jump scares that play with the audience’s expectations, while the rest just follow them two-by-two. Add to that how we keep getting build-up, build-up, build-up, but once we get to the third act, the payoff hardly feels worth it. Don’t get me wrong, it still aims true as far as pathos, but again, drama, not horror. I wouldn’t mind this as much as if it wasn’t incredibly clear that this is genuinely trying to be scary. And save for a few exceptions, it never quite reaches that goal.

All in all, I admit that I like this film but not quite for the reasons it’s clearly trying for. The acting is good, the visuals are solid and there’s some definite worth to be gotten out of the story, the characters and the way it uses the setting, but as something meant to send chills down the spine, it’s all too lukewarm to really get that effect. It’s kind of bizarre that a ghost story would be at its least compelling when it focuses on the actual ghosts, but that’s the sort of tonal mish-mash we’re dealing with here. If you are going to check this out, it’s best not to go in expecting to be completely scared out of your wits. If you want a supernatural story with more heart than scares, you’ll probably find something to like with this one.

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