A Horrible Way To Die – An ashen color palette and overabundance of self-loathing make this early Adam Wingard/Simon Barrett collaboration a difficult watch. At the very least it once again demonstrates their nifty ability to flip an egg to reveal a pancake, putting a macabre spin on heartstring-tugging indie romances by having Amy Seimetz’s recovering alcoholic Sarah fear for her life when her serial killer ex-boyfriend Garrick Turrell (AJ Bowen) escapes police custody. Seimetz’s naturalistic rapport with Joe Swanberg’s AA member Kevin grounds the story in a depressingly real environment, but the payoff promised by Garrick’s gradual approach is what really carries the movie over large patches of touch-and-go romantic moments between the two teetotalers. Wingard relies so heavily on out-of-focus shots for a drowsy effect that it eventually distracts, rather than accentuates, the movie’s burnt out tone, which is suited well instead by the dialed down violence. Even with a serial killer on the loose, Wingard/Barrett look on obliquely, stewing in Garrick’s psychological malaise rather than showing his actual crimes. The sight of a choked-up Garrick holding a hacksaw is enough to bring back to earth anyone who pumped their fists whenever Dexter collected a new blood slide. This is a movie that asks for the full runtime to make any real impact, so curious fans be warned.
The Sacrament – Much was made of Ti West’s stab at found footage. Some hoped he’d elevate the subgenre, others were afraid he was squandering his talent. Both camps are at least partially correct in that The Sacrament is a captivating, if by no means perfect, watch, but its bigger problems actually stem from West’s script rather than his technique. He starts things off on the right foot by framing the events of the movie as a salvaged Vice documentary, lending the story a seedy air of plausibility and avoiding any shaky cam bullshit by giving the camera to a professional. AJ Bowen’s reporter and Joe Swanberg’s cameraman drop in on a religious commune hoping to uncover some sort of tomfoolery, but are caught off guard by its members’ consistent high praise and their leader, Father’s, overwhelming personality. Their presence swiftly brings underlying tensions to a head, however, and they find themselves in a conflict worse than they imagined. West sticks close to the Jonestown tragedy that inspired him, sometimes to his detriment. The plot is watered down by decades’ worth of daytime television that has rendered nearly everything about Jonestown a cliché, building up to a moment that can be interpreted as West’s defeat at the hands of found footage or a massive screw-you to it. Unable to contrive a reason to properly document the most harrowing moment, he breaks free from the in-film cameras to swirl around the scene unconstrained, providing a “dramatization” of events that would be the envy of Unsolved Mysteries. It’s a nagging defect, and alongside the familiarity of the story, damages what was to that point a solid effort made great by Gene Jones’s turn as Father.
The Vanishing – George Sluizer’s unassailable first adaptation of Tim Krabbe’s The Golden Egg starts with a fake-out, wringing an exorbitant amount of tension out of lovebirds Rex and Saskia’s car running out of gas in a tunnel, only to see them manage the situation and move on. It’s the only time The Vanishing deigns to pursue a cheap thrill, increasing your paranoia, but also reinforcing your expectation for hackneyed horror scenarios. Everything to come is a subversion of that cliche, beginning with Saskia’s disappearance in broad daylight at a busy rest stop. Apposite to this unassuming tragedy, and in perfect opposition to Rex’s flailing, passionate search for her, is Raymond, the quiet man behind her disappearance. He commands the rest of the movie, and as embodied by a supremely weird Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu he spins a disturbing psychological self-portrait by treating Saskia’s abduction as his science experiment. Sluizer fashions a detective story that shows the villain working to uncover the perfect crime before attempting to pull it off, rewarding the paranoiacs who watch by showing the predator at work in an ordinary ecosystem. Embedded in the parallel journeys of boyfriend and abductor is a nervous look into the tyranny of obsession: Raymond’s methodical, at times humorous, testing of himself, and Rex’s self-destructive insistence on learning the truth. Thanks to Sluizer’s attentive eye, the meeting of the two is equal parts thrilling and dreadful: an unstoppable force meeting a very suspiciously movable object.
The Machine – It’s up to the man formerly known as Gustav Graves to uphold the side of good in this dank sci-fi, pitting a reluctant scientist against his war-drumming superiors in a future cold war between the U.S. and China. Toby Stephens’s Vincent is driven by his daughter’s neurological disorder to return wounded and braindead soldiers to normal function, while turning a blind eye to their inhumane treatment. When his disapproving new apprentice (Caity Lotz) stirs up trouble, though, she becomes his latest test subject, and her transformation from blustering activist to naïve android widens the divide between Vincent and his slimy boss. Following a truly impressive opening sequence that shifts from moving to haunting when a cybernetically-enhanced soldier (John Paul MacLeod) goes haywire, the plot falls into a familiar rut, and director Caradog James has trouble finding ways to dress up the warehouse that makes up his entire set. Unfortunately Lotz is more convincing as a robot than she is a human, apparently so focused on nailing her android performance that her short screen time as a human is defined by a couple dozen bad line readings. So it really is up to Stephens to be good, and he does well with what he’s given, stoically fighting for his daughter, his new surrogate android daughter, and his work against a bad guy ported in from the ’80s. James slips in some cool ideas and works hard to keep the story intimate, but can’t avoid the mandate for easy, good-versus-evil catharsis that plagues most sci-fi.