Thursday, January 16, 2014

Seconds Apart: American Gothic Redux

So for a while I was on a streak of mostly low-budget, down-to-earth, character-focused movies, and almost like some kind of corrective, the next thing that catches my eye is pretty much the opposite of that. It’s stylized not quite to hell and back, but close, and the characters are less people with interior lives, and more products of the film’s conceit. They’re very much characters, but that’s okay. In Seconds Apart, we have a nice, albeit somewhat modest, example of how all of the stuff I've been trumpeting lately can be sacrificed for the sake of mood and feeling.

The movie opens on the sort of adolescent house party to which its attendees would probably refer as a “rager.” Lots of people everywhere, loud music, beer, jollity, that kind of thing.

(No, I didn't go to a lot of those when I was in high school, why do you ask?)

The camera moves pretty quickly to a group of strapping young men sitting around a table, playing quarters and discussing the pubic grooming preferences of what sounds like half of the young women at their school. Sure, it’s shorthand for “these guys are serious assholes and you shouldn't feel bad when they die, which they totally will”, but the transition from “lighthearted fun” to “shithead misogyny” is abrupt enough to make it genuinely off-putting. We leave these future leaders of America to follow another point of view into the party - this one seen through the greenish grain of a handheld video camera (but don’t worry, it’s not a found-footage film) and not received well by the other attendees. Whoever’s holding the camcorder, they’re getting flipped off and people are saying things like “what are you freaks doing here?” Uh-oh.

Soon enough, we’re back to the big men on campus, still drinking and objectifying, until one of them looks up and sees that our two narrative perspectives have converged, in the form of two young men, twins, holding a camcorder on them. Smash cut to darkness as the lights go out suddenly. When the lights come back on, there’s our bros, still talking about women like they’re things, but they’re oddly emotionless, mechanical, and quarters has been replaced by Russian roulette as their game of choice.

Needless to say, it doesn't end well, and we witness the final deaths as a recording that the twins made. A recording they’re watching with some amusement, right before Mom calls them down to dinner.

It all only takes a few minutes of screen time, but it’s a pretty effective statement of the film’s premise - there are these two brothers - Seth and Jonah, suitably Biblical - they’re twins, they’re creepy as fuck, and they make bad things happen by somehow influencing how others perceive the world. Although it's established pretty early on that they’re capable of terrible things through some supernatural means, the movie is ultimately less about their reign of terror and more about their downfall. Things begin to fall apart as the detective investigating the atrocity that opens the movie starts to take an interest in the brothers, while at the same time a new student named Eve meets one of the brothers and takes an interest in him. The attention of these two people drives a wedge between Seth and Jonah (the detective pegs Jonah as "the sensitive one", and Eve, perhaps responding to that, develops an attraction to Jonah as well), and sets a downward spiral in motion.

This downward spiral is chronicled in dramatic fashion. The film is set in places big on atmosphere -big, old houses, Catholic schools full of dark paneling and iconography, graveyards - and the world feels perpetually overcast, even when it’s sunny. The twins are exactly as creepy as you’d expect, doing everything together, sharing a bed, talking cryptically about "feeling it" and "the project", icy, remote and smug. They’re immersed in their own private world to a degree that reveals itself pretty carefully, though an observant viewer will probably twig to what's going on before it's revealed. To the film's credit, it doesn't rely on this reveal as a narrative linchpin, it just adds one more piece to the broader story. As their carefully constructed world crumbles around them, so does their facade as they respond in very different ways to the pressure they're experiencing, underlining the idea that events are separating them. Their parents are strange, too - mannered and oddly affectless, shifting from well-meaning but oblivious to downright unsettling the longer they're on screen, contributing to a mystery that keeps taking odd turns the longer the detective keeps digging - first into the secrets bound to be hidden in any private school, then into the twins’ past.

The end product is one that feels slightly dreamlike at times, not unlike Dead Silence or even the parts of Saw dealing with the retired detective. The dialogue is a little artificial-sounding, but not enough to be annoying - it's just as stylized as the world of the movie needs it to be to keep up the mood. The action is liberally broken up by dream sequences riffing both on what’s currently happening and some horrible event in the detective’s past, making for lots of jarring transitions between the real and unreal. This technique is also put to good effect in other contexts, revealing some of the twins’ past mind-games through shocking flashback, and even some dark wit as scenes of students mourning the deaths at the beginning of the movie cut suddenly to a painting of a sobbing Jesus. There are some serious compositional smarts on display here, if only in flashes.

The movie does a pretty good job of playing fair with the audience - it's not so tightly plotted that everything matters, but very little is gratuitous and much of what seems like affectation ends up serving a larger narrative purpose, and it all pretty much contributes to this overarching feeling of gloom, unease, and faint but pervasive wrongness, punctuated with sudden bursts of violence. What loose ends there are generally work better as loose ends, and it's to the movie's credit that it knows what needs explaining and what doesn't. It’s also not afraid to keep things from being too pat - although the detective is very much the good guy, he’s pretty damaged and other cops don’t take him seriously, and the twins, as monstrous as they are, show glimpses of humanity that suggest less “cackling supervillains” and more “children given the equivalent of a loaded gun.” Almost Carrie by way of Columbine. It never quite does as much with its compositional intelligence and ambiguity as it could - it’s not as smart as it could be, but it’s smarter than I expected it to be.

This same falling-a-little-short means that the film ends a little weaker than I'd like, relying a little too much on cliches associated with confrontation between supernaturally powerful characters and cops with tragic pasts, so it doesn't go out with the bang it could. As movies about enmeshed twins who have a woman come between them go, it's not as disturbing in its imagery or psychologically harrowing as David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers (which is one motherfucker of a movie - I saw it in the theaters and was so disturbed by it I haven't been able to revisit it since), but it tells a nicely unsettling story about two creepy boys who can make anyone see what they want them to see, and what happens when they can't extend that same influence to each other anymore.

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

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