Saturday, November 20, 2010

13HRS: What's Unsaid Is As Important As What's Said

I don't like spoilers in movie reviews. First, because I think a review should be more than just a recounting of the plot, and also because the element of surprise can be so important to a good movie. I've had some really good movies ruined for me because some jackass spoiled an important part - I've stayed away from some movies altogether as a result, and others, for as powerful as they were when I saw them, would have packed an atomic wallop had I not known things that were blithely revealed as part of a review. It's simply good practice not to give shit away.

As a corollary to that, I think "It was obvious that X was going to happen" is another hallmark of lazy criticism, along with "why didn't they just" and "that would never happen." Maybe it's subjective, but I've seen this accusation leveled at movies where I didn't see it coming, or at least didn't see it until I when I suspect the filmmakers wanted me to see it. Which is another thing - there are multiple types of twist. There's the sudden, shocking twist, where nobody's supposed to see it coming so when it happens, it's horrible. There's the slow reveal with restatements of the clues we've gotten all along, highlighting the important bits to aid us in our discovery, giving us the slow shudder of mounting realization. And then there's my favorite - the slow reveal relying entirely on the audience to put it together, so that when you've put the last piece into place in your head, the sense of "oh, shit" is as clear as a bell.

This is why I'm skeptical of "it was obvious that X was going to happen." It's hard to tell when it's genuine disappointment at a mishandled reveal, and when it's just hindsight bias serving to protect someone who felt upset or threatened or more frightened than they cared to be by a reveal. Part of a good, solid horror movie is it staying with you. Haunting you. Some people don't dig that. If you're just in it for quick, cheap entertainment, it's the difference between a fast-food hamburger and foie gras. Consume too greedily and your appetites won't know what to do with what you've given them.

This is why I'm sitting here, ultimately ambivalent about 13HRS. I feel like something was revealed a little earlier than maybe it should have been, but I'm having a hard time telling if it was the film or just me. There's a mixture here between the well-done and mishandled that makes me think of a really good film trying to claw its way out of an average one.

The movie opens with a car traveling down a road in the middle of the night. We don't see the driver, and we only see the sections of road illuminated by headlights. Someone is hurtling through the void toward something. Someone turns out to be Sarah, a young woman home to England after moving to the States, and something is the rambling family estate, a big stately home in what appears to be a transitory state of repair. Not the desolation of Longleigh House, but not exactly the cozy manor either. Something is wrong, the family is in disarray. Furniture covered with tarps, scaffolding, exposed wood. In between falling apart and being repaired.

In short order, we're introduced to Sarah's life back in England - she's part of what's called now a blended family (though that always conjured unpleasant kitchen appliance imagery for me), her mother is married to her stepfather Duncan, who has three sons. It's not clear whether or not Sarah's mother is theirs. The three sons - Charlie, Stephen, & Luke - are out in the property's enormous barn, drinking and partying and listening to loud music and carrying on.  We continue to get a crash course in Sarah's life - Stephen's the oldest and a total fuckup, living in the barn and getting high a lot. Charlie is the middle brother and Sarah seems closest to him. Luke is only thirteen and is sleeping off a serious weed high in the loft, courtesy of Stephen.

There are assorted friends - Doug, Gary, and Emily (who apparently is Sarah's best friend, was Doug's girlfriend and is now with Stephen). In one way or another, everyone seems to be mad at Sarah for leaving them to go to Los Angeles a few months ago. There are family troubles. Dad's angry about money - they're trying to sell the house (hence the repairs) but there isn't enough money. There's a lot of fighting about bills. Mom's gone for long stretches of time and doesn't tell anyone where she's going. The boys think she's cheating. Sarah's return seems to have set off a whole lot of soap opera - accusations and tangled relationships and recriminations fly fast and thick. During all of this, the liquor flows and the weed gets passed and the music blares…

…until the power goes out. It's an old house, the wiring is fucked, and one good rainstorm shorts everything out. The six of them (Luke still back in the barn sleeping it off) sneak into the house to grab some candles and lanterns and extra booze…

…only to find Dad dead and thoroughly gutted in his bedroom…

…and some large, bestial thing roaming the halls.

At this point, the film becomes sort of a siege film, with the kids and their friends taking to the eaves of the house to avoid whatever creature has just torn their family patriarch apart and try to figure out what the hell has happened.

(One thing I would have liked to see this movie do more was utilize the house itself - it's huge and rambling and old, with all sorts of great little nooks and crannies. You get the sense that a lot of history could be contained in the house, piled up and crammed into a multitude of attics and connected crawlspaces. Its mazelike sprawl could have made for great tension, but they really just return to the same spaces again and again.)

So really this is less of a monster movie and more of a siege movie - the monster is big, unseen for the vast majority of the film, and even its attacks are over very quickly. For most of the movie, our story is less about the monster itself and more about how the circumstances in which the siblings and their friends find themselves reveal their character. It's a lifeboat movie in a stately home. Some of what gets revealed is important, some of it is a red herring, but some people crack under the strain, some people get stronger, and some people get killed for acting rashly, like you do. There is, as there usually is in a movie like this, much moving carefully from place to place to retrieve things and to make ones way to an escape route. Much is made of family, and secrets, and things left unsaid (or things which should have been left unsaid), and it's the middle of this chain of events that an explanation starts to form, one which takes advantage of specific images and ideas to plant a suggestion. Who is related to whom, where mother is in all of this, what the policeman en route to the scene discovers.

All of this comes together well in execution, but maybe a little too quickly. I think the omission of a single exchange between a police officer and an animal control expert would have kept things on the tracks for me. As it was, that exchange slotted everything into place for me, and the remainder of the movie ended up being, instead of a climax, an unwinding of the watchspring toward an inevitable conclusion, robbed of its power and tension by all-too-complete understanding.

Which is too bad, because there's a solid movie under here, under pacing problems that rob scenes of their tension, under occasionally hammy acting and stagey dialogue that takes your out of your involvement in the story, under tipping the hand too soon. What it does right it does well. But at the end, once the 13 hours are up and the sun has replaced the moon in the sky, the corpses of the evening's events laid bare to the day, it's less tragic than it is formality. The only ones who hadn't known all along were the characters in the movie itself.

IMDB entry

No comments:

Post a Comment