Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Pact: A Cinematic 7-10 Split

The word "average" is slippery. It's usually used to connote something that is typical, neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally bad - the middle of the distribution. What makes it slippery is that an average isn't necessarily descriptive of a particular type of distribution - you can get the same average for a bunch of middling scores as you can for a bunch of really high and really low scores. When I was a student in high school, I brought home a report card with four A's and two D's on it. My father looked at it, paused for a moment, and said "boy, you made a 3.00 the hard way, didn't you?"

The Pact is an average ghost story, but it's not average because it's consistently mediocre, it's average because for every thing it does right, it does something else equally wrong, which makes for a deeply frustrating viewing experience.

Nicole is at her mom's house, taking care of various and sundry matters in the days leading up to her mom's funeral. She's not too broken up over the death, and she's on the phone with her sister, who is most pointedly not there to help take care of stuff, and we learn through a lot of really awkward exposition that Nicole used to have a drug habit, and people don’t trust her to follow through on anything anymore.

(When I say "awkward exposition", I mean this is a conversation occurring over the phone, and in the middle of the call, Nicole for no apparent reason switches to speakerphone so we can all hear what her sister is saying, long enough for her sister to be all "you were using I can't trust you blah blah blah", and once that particular character beat has been delivered, Nicole switches back to talking privately. It's awkward and artificial because she's not doing anything that necessitates switching to speaker. It's strictly because we need to hear what her sister is saying.)

Once they're done being testy with each other, Nicole pulls out her laptop to fake-Skype with her daughter back in wherever Nicole lives. She's having trouble getting a strong enough signal to maintain the call, and wanders around the house asking if her daughter can see her. Sure enough, at one point her daughter asks "Mommy, who's that behind you?"

Nicole is alone.

Sure enough, spooky things happen in short order, and Nicole vanishes. Enter her sister Annie. She's come for the funeral, and to find out what happened to her sister. Well, that last part is sort of a lie, everyone assumes Nicole flaked out and went on another drug bender and would surface in a few days. Their cousin is looking after Nicole's daughter and Annie seems pretty peeved and resigned about the whole thing. What follows is her attempt to unravel the mystery around her sister's disappearance and the strange goings-on in the house of her dead mother. It's most definitely haunted, but by what?

I'm being pretty glib about this movie, and that's not really fair to it, because for the most part, it does a lot of things well. The Pact is a ghost story, and most good ghost stories have at their heart a mystery - who is haunting this place, and why? Here, the mystery unspools slowly but surely, and there are some nice twists and turns to the story as it makes its careful, deliberate way to a conclusion. It's equally careful and deliberate in much of its cinematic and narrative technique as well. The filmmakers are willing to rely mostly on static or slow-moving shots, images repeated with slight but significant variation, and inference instead of outright exposition. It's not clear right away how all of the pieces fit together, all of the seemingly unrelated imagery and odd occurrences, but in the end they do, and in a way that largely feels organic instead of forced.

But please, note my caveat - when I say "for the most part", the exceptions are glaring and egregious. The dialogue, especially in the beginning, is uniformly wooden and expository in a way you'd typically associate with a Lifetime Movie of the Week. It's a lot of people telling each other things or saying things about themselves out loud instead of talking to each other and communicating through inference like normal human beings do. Characterization is pretty much accomplished through the aforementioned unnatural dialogue and obvious signifiers replacing actual behavior. We know the two sisters had a bad childhood because Nicole has a bunch of tattoos, in addition to us being helpfully told that she's a drug addict, and Annie rides a motorcycle and is surly and gives no fucks and works as a waitress for lack of any more focused ambition. We know all of this because we see it or are told it outright. There's a police detective too, and he's all stubbly and rumpled and takes an interest in Nicole's disappearance for reasons, and apart from an estranged wife and daughter (that we know about because he talks about them), that's pretty much all he is - Detective Scruffy. They don't feel like people, and I'm becoming more convinced every day that if you're not going to go balls-out full-tilt crazy with weird shit in your movie, you should probably invest a good amount of effort in characterization so we feel like we're watching a bunch of actual people go through something horrible and scary instead of a bunch of stock types.

There are also two or three moments throughout where the slow & subtle approach is jettisoned in favor of the most obvious resolution to a given scene possible (to the point that I anticipated a specific line of dialogue verbatim seconds before it actually occurred). In at least one case this resulted in a really ham-handed scare, complete with fast pan left and music sting in a movie that otherwise eschews that approach. I don't necessarily mind using lots of sudden camera moves and jarring strings to pull off a scare, it's a time-honored technique. But it's so at odds with the approach taken throughout the rest of the movie that it feels wildly out of place, especially because it occurs at a point when the action hasn't really reached a fever pitch yet. It feels pasted in from a separate film.

And just when I thought they were going to pull off a decent ending - meditative, quiet, ending on a note of unease, they go for a last-second stinger that's as obvious and hackneyed as possible. Had they ended the movie 45 seconds or so earlier, it would have largely redeemed itself, but nope, all kinds of goodwill burned away with a cheap "The End…or IS IT?" that completely kills what is otherwise a solid ending to a problematic film.

(And yep, a casual perusal of IMDB reveals that a sequel is in production. Of course there fucking is. Why not? What does it matter if a complete story is told and we end on a note of supreme unease that invites us contemplate what we've seen? We need a franchise, dammit!)

And this is the problem - the shortcomings subvert and sometimes outright kneecap the strengths. The Pact shares some DNA with the far superior Lovely Molly (the lingering unease of being back in a home where you experienced a lifetime of abuse) and Absentia (two troubled sisters trying to make sense of the experiences that shaped them), but doesn't really handle any of their shared features quite as well. We get a sense that life in the house was bad, but it's never really explored, and we know that Nicole and Annie are supposed to be sisters, but - it's not necessarily that it's not believable that they're sisters, but we never really see them interact in a way that describes any sort of sisterly relationship. For that matter, nobody in this film is really all that believable as people. Like those other movies, it takes place in a typical middle-class home, and it's supposed to be a story told in character beats and small, quiet moments, but character beats require actual characters and small, quiet moments only work when you trust them to build atmosphere on their own, and you don't sell them out with easy jump scares.

And it's too bad, as I swing back and forth from its weaknesses to its strengths. There are some nifty narrative reversals and surprises that take time to play out - yes, the house is haunted but maybe not exactly how you think. Yes, there are obvious bad guys here, but also less obvious ones. There are a lot of right choices made, they just aren't couched in as much narrative or technical restraint and confidence as they need to be to work as well as they could. It's the C that you get when you get A's on half the assignments and D's on the other.

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

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