Monday, January 27, 2014

Plague Town: Wandering Off In The Wrong Direction

One useful way to think about narrative is in terms of travel - starting at one point and ending at another. It can be movement through time or space or both, but most stories are journeys of a sort, with a beginning and an end. Not all of them by any means, but enough that the decision to break that assumption works as a stylistic choice precisely because it disrupts our expectations. How you choose to tell a story is just as important as the story you tell because it shapes how the audience will be able to understand the information you put in front of them. Strongly linear narratives can make a story feel inexorable, overwhelming. Fractured or non-linear narratives can be disorienting and dreamlike. Cyclical narratives reinforce ideas about inevitability. Narratives that focus on discrete moments over causal connection create a feeling of isolation. In general, good storytelling marries a narrative style to theme and imagery, either in complement or contrast.

The biggest problem with Plague Town is that it feels directionless and confused, both in narrative and tone.

The film opens with a woman noisily giving birth, and there's something oddly fraught about it - a woman outside asks a priest if "this could be the one", as he walks into the house, and the mother is refusing to go through with the birth. Not the "I don't think I can do this" borne of the exhaustion attending regular childbirth, more of a "I don't want this to happen." Which, if you think about the Catholic church's stance on abortion and birth control isn't really all that much of a surprise either. She hasn't had a whole lot of agency up until now, why should this be any different? The father just stands by helplessly, tending the fire. It's when the child is born that things start getting really strange. The priest takes one look at the child, whose cries seem pitched a little lower than you'd expect from a newborn infant, and he pulls a pistol out of his bag. The priest is going to kill the kid, which is very much not in line with church policy. The child's father, desperate, says "he's one of God's creatures, isn't he?"

The grim-faced priest says "I don't think so."

Given everything that came before, that last line is exactly the line you'd expect in this situation. But then things take a turn for the unexpected, and the priest's plans for the child are foiled in violent fashion. Jump forward 14 years, to a group of people standing by the side of the road.

(And this is the first real indication of the weird narrative and tonal inconsistencies that are going to plague [ha!] the movie. We know it's a 14-year leap not because the establishing events are appended with a title reading "14 years later", but because all of the above establishing events - the attempted execution of a baby by a priest - are preceded by a title reading "14 years ago", prompting the question "Fourteen years before what?" Well, before a bunch of people standing by the side of the road, that's what. We never really get a chance to catch up to events or really take in their implications, and just as we sort of have a grip on the thing, it's off to another scene and something else happening, trailing unanswered questions in its wake.)

These people - our protagonists - seem like a bunch of strangers waiting for the bus, and they are, after a fashion. We're introduced to Dr. Jerry Monohan and his girlfriend/intended fiancee Annette, his two daughters, sisters who couldn't be less alike - Molly, all sullen and moody and wearing black (and apparently on some kind of medication for unspecified "mental issues"), and Jessica, all perky and bitchy and spoiled and blonde. They're sniping at each other and at Annette. Rounding out our little group is Robin, a young Englishman to whom Jessica had taken a fancy about three days previous. They're on a trip through rural Ireland, a trip planned as a family-bonding vacation, but the daughters aren't having it. Dad wants to marry Annette, his daughters are vehement about her not being their mother and equally vehement about each others' flaws, Molly just wants to be left alone, Jessica wants to go someplace with soft beds and room service and not be anywhere near anyone but Robin, who's pretty obviously along for the ride in the hopes of helping to recolonize the United States via Jessica's pants. So we have this snarled tangle of relationships and hinted-at past recriminations and long-held grudges tramping through the Irish wilderness in hopes of sight-seeing opportunities.

Needless to say, things go from bad to worse when all of their yelling at each other gets them turned around, and by the time they resolve to just head back to town, they've missed the last bus for the day. Soon enough, they discover somebody's car, luggage intact, left by the side of the road. To their credit, everyone's a little creeped out by this. On the other hand, for us it has absolutely no mystery whatsoever because by this point we've been shown a flashback of the car's occupants being attacked by unseen assailants. Much like the "14 years ago" title, it answers a question we haven't even been given the opportunity to ask, and so what should be a feeling of "I don't like this" turns into "wait, what? Oh, okay." It's not mysterious, just confusing. So they take shelter in the car while Dad, and then Robin, go looking for a phone. And yes, you guessed it, they've all managed to wander into the vaguely defined "town" of the title (I get that rural communities aren't organized like urban ones, but for a movie titled Plague Town, there's very little sense of place - scenes occur in isolated patches of buildings with no apparent narrative or geographical connection to each other), and things in this town are Not Quite Right. I mean, we know this already, insofar as putting children down at birth was at one time a routine occurrence, and what's supposed to happen now is we're supposed to discover what that means.

And this is where Plague Town blows it - the audience's opportunity for discovery, understanding, and even emotional engagement with a mood is constantly undermined. Scenes cut away too soon, or linger longer than they should, leaving us confused and dispelling any tension that accumulates. Important exposition occurs in the background and around the edges, so it feels like we're slightly behind the movie itself, always getting there just a little too late and straining to make sense of things. This wouldn't necessarily be a bad approach if we were ever given the opportunity to piece things together for ourselves, but we aren't. Stuff just keeps happening and happening and it's hard to make sense of it all, if there is even sense to make. There's something to be said for dropping the viewers into the middle of someone else's nightmare and allowing it to defy explanation because the protagonists aren't given that luxury, but it loses something when the audience is never really given the chance to put any of the pieces together themselves.

It's one thing for the protagonists to be kept completely in the dark, but if you're not going to explain anything, then you'd better make the experience of being immersed in these situations really intense and upsetting and scary, give them real momentum. Momentum in this film is constantly being disrupted as the focus shifts between three or four viewpoints, and along with the narrative shifts come tonal shifts. It feels like the filmmakers were trying for black humor, but instead alternated moments of unrelenting violence with glib, goofy bits that just didn't fit and only ended up deflating whatever tension had built to that point. So we're left, at any given moment, not only not knowing what to think, but also not knowing what to feel. New information just keeps getting piled on and piled on without any way to really connect it clearly to anything else, things happen in isolation without connecting to the larger movie, so it feels sometimes like the filmmakers came up with a bunch of scenes, shot the scenes, and then forgot that the scenes need to tell a larger story.

It's too bad, because there are flashes of a much better movie here. There are some great, tense moments as the antagonists are stalking the protagonists, and there's an extended sequence between Robin, a woman, and the woman's granddaughter that is as deliriously intense as the family dinner scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Some of the violent scenes are oddly stilted in a way that robs them of any dramatic effectiveness (along with cheap makeup effects that don't hold up to close attention), but some are really unsparing and suggest a film that could have been much scarier if played with a completely straight face. The protagonists aren't just ciphers, either. It's not a character study, but they talk and act like real people for the most part. The arguing between Molly, Jessica, and Annette is especially, painfully, believable - they really talk like people who know each other just well enough to know where to stick the knives and have enough long-buried resentments to want to do so. Jerry is a man trying to bring his family back together, and Robin is just some dude who's gotten in way over his head. We don't know a ton about them, but we know enough to care about what happens to them.

But these moments and strengths are few and far between, scattered throughout the movie, and what remains is so muddled, that it's hard to come away from watching the movie with a clear picture of what it was you just watched. The final scene tells us what happens to at least one of the protagonists, and then pulls away to reveal…a bunch of trees. For no apparent reason. They don't give us a sense of place, they aren't in any contrast to what we've just seen, they don't bring anything full circle. They're just a bunch of trees. And that's kind of the movie in a nutshell. You're trying to listen to someone tell a story, but they keep getting distracted, and they lose track, and they start telling another story instead or get ahead of themselves and just when you're waiting for them to get to the end, they sort of wander off as if they forgot they were telling a story at all.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix Instant (Available on DVD)

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