Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Clinic: It's Quiet…Too Quiet

There was a period of time when my wife and I used to watch medical documentary shows, and in all of their real gore and ickiness, I was never as grossed out by shows set in the ER as much as shows set in maternity wards. Bullet wounds, knife wounds, broken and gangrenous limbs, none of those squicked me out the way live birth did. On TV, freshly born babies look like nothing so much as rubber props covered in slime. It felt like I was watching a monster movie to some degree.

In short: Babies, birth, children, and parenthood are fucking scary.

At best, you get movies like Rosemary's Baby, Eraserhead, and The Exorcist. At worst, you get any number of maudlin, heartstring-tugging Lifetime specials about plucky mothers fighting to get their kids back or protecting their kids from psycho ex-husbands or nannies. Kids are fucking scary, losing your kid is even scarier. That said, The Clinic manages to deftly avoid the obvious beats - most of them, not all of them - to good effect.

I don't usually single out opening credits for comment, but these are nicely creepy - long, low tracking shots of tile floors and rows of hooks, more reminiscent of a slaughterhouse than the titular clinic, the contrast communicates something important about this movie early on: We're telling you it's about one thing, and it's not not about that thing, but it's also not about that thing.

A young couple - Cameron, and his hugely pregnant fiancee Beth - are driving through rural Australia to visit her parents. As near as I can tell from pretty much every movie set in Australia that I've ever watched, this involves long stretches of highway going across flat desert nothing with little towns dotting the route, but miles and miles away from each other. They're arguing a little, but not so much as to be a whole thing. They're young, and in love, and have a lot of stuff with which to deal. In short order, our young couple get run off the road by a truck that's come pretty much out of nowhere.

(This is where I expected to say "A-ha! The truck driver is evil and is going to hound them or come back and try to kill them!" Nope, truck driver was, as near as I can tell, just an asshole.  This isn't important to the movie, but I appreciate it when movies dodge the obvious. It's not the thing you think it's going to be.)

The car's pretty banged up, so they get it towed to the nearest garage and pay for a room at a ratty little motel in one of these tiny little towns. The proprietor is appropriately gross, as is the room, but it's only going to be for one night, so they can deal. This bit hits entirely too close to home for me, being pretty much a reenactment of an unfortunate overnight stay I had in St. Louis. The night clerk looked like his parents skimped on the chromosomes, and the mattress in the room was an air mattress. Aaaaggghhhhhhh but anyway this is about the movie. So Cameron gets up before Beth and goes to get some food, which ends up being sort of a production in this one-horse town. When he comes back, Beth is gone. Creepy motel owner and suspiciously good ol' boy sheriff are less than no help, and so Cameron flips out a little and goes looking for Beth on his own.

Meanwhile, Beth wakes up in an abandoned warehouse, in a tub of ice, with a freshly-stitched incision across her abdomen.

The rest of The Clinic is Cameron trying to find Beth, and Beth trying to figure out exactly what the hell has happened to her. It could be really tired and awful - terrified, traumatized woman running around what turns out to be an abandoned slaughterhouse (see what they did there?), I mean, it sort of has Saw-type "we're going to play a game" bullshit written all over it at first blush, but what we get instead is a relatively low-key mystery - it's not immediately apparent who has captured Beth or why, apart from the obvious baby-stealing, and the movie does a pretty good job of revealing just enough information at any given point in the story to keep us interested without completely throwing us. It could be a lot more histrionic, though Beth's grief and terror are palpable and real, even the highest-tension points for much of the movie take place in quiet and stillness. It walks sort of a queasy line in that sense - we don't get really wound up as much as you'd think, it's much more careful and deliberate, which is good. But at the same time, I sort of wanted to be wound up more - I wanted more visceral scares than the movie really communicated.

So what I'm left with is something akin to ambivalence. Which is weird, because there's a lot about The Clinic to like - it's smart, careful, doesn't overexplain, and takes all of these odd or implausible things that happen throughout the movie and provides reasons for them. It's a movie that doesn't underestimate the viewer - it treats us like adults, doesn't beat us over the head with explanation. It's not airtight - its endgame stretches plausibility a little in a few different ways, but for a movie where people run around, scream, and spill blood, it's pleasantly free of juvenile mistakes or cheap scares. Honestly, I'd like to see more movies with ostensibly lowbrow narratives (like, say, slasher films) handled with this much intelligence and skill, because the end results would probably be scary as hell. As it is, I'm sitting here, quietly impressed with what I've seen, but not really scared or moved as much as I feel I should have been. Like, I don't want to scream watching this, I want to give it a golf clap.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant
Available on Netflix

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