Friday, March 21, 2014

Vinyan: Until Human Voices Wake Us, And We Drown

It’s easy enough to make scary movies in which bad things happen - watching something horrible happen as it occurs raises our hackles, triggers startle responses, gets us wondering about what’s going to happen to the characters with whom we nominally identify. The tagline to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre said it best: “Who will survive, and what will be left of them?”

But what about movies where the bad thing has already happened? We can all respond emotionally to the crash or the explosion, but there’s something to be said for films that manage to create something out of the experience of crawling from the wreckage. Case in point: Vinyan, which is less a horror movie than a hallucinatory tone poem about the rage, grief, and nihilistic despair that attends the loss of a child.

The film opens with the sound of crashing water, and what sound like screams. It’s suffocating, everywhere at once. When it subsides, it is because a woman has surfaced in the ocean. Her name is Jeanne, and she and her husband Paul are a presumably well-to-do European couple living in Thailand. They’ve been instrumental in helping to fund relief and rescue efforts in the area in the six months following the massive 2004 tsunami. It’s not just first-world philanthropy, though - they lost their son Joshua in the storm. Presumably carried out to sea in a massive wave. Crashing water, and the sound of screams. They’re at a small gathering for like-minded individuals, other rich white expats who have been generous with their money and time, and a woman who has been sneaking across military blockades into Burma to assess the situation there is showing some footage she shot surreptitiously to convince these people to help fund efforts there as well. In the middle of the footage, Jeanne asks her to stop and rewind, because she sees a little boy in the footage, walking away from the camera.

A little boy who looks just like Joshua.

And as far as Jeanne’s concerned, that’s all it takes. It was only six months ago, the grief is still so raw she’s practically bleeding. She wants to go into Burma. There’s a chance that her son is still alive and she is determined to take it. It’s going to be tough - the only way to get into Burma is to get in touch with the Triads, who do not fuck around. It’s a flat-out illegal trip into what is basically terra incognita. Jeanne does not care. Her mind is made up. Paul isn’t anywhere near as convinced, but who is he to say no? They talk to the woman who shot the footage and she puts them in touch with some people. And from there, it’s all one long trip into darkness.

Sometimes, when people talk about stories, they talk about the idea that the journey is more important than the arrival, or something like that. Vinyan is very much a film about a journey - it’s both a literal and metaphorical instantiation of the question “how far are you willing to go?” Part of it is geographical - they are still strangers in this country, unfamiliar with the language and local custom, and there’s never really a point once they get underway that they aren’t totally out of their depth. Everyone is taking advantage of them, capitalizing on their desire to find their son, and our awareness of their vulnerability runs like a tight wire through every frame. They spend most of the movie one bad decision or wrong word away from being just straight-up robbed and murdered and left to rot in the jungle. It’s hard to tell how aware of this they are. Paul seems to have some idea, but he’s largely ineffectual in the face of Jeanne’s single-minded determination, and the way he sort of helplessly objects only for her to undercut him without even really bothering to acknowledge him lends the proceedings a dreamlike feeling of impotence, like when you’re in a dream and something bad is happening but you move like you’re stuck in molasses or you try to scream and only a whisper comes out. In fact, the whole thing feels dreamlike - everything feels disconnected, desultory, characters slip completely out of frame and before we know it, we're as lost as they are. We’re as adrift as Jeanne and Paul.

And that’s the second big thematic through-line here - water is everywhere in this movie, so the ideas of drowning or being adrift and traveling echo throughout. Jeanne and Paul lose their son to water, they have to travel downriver by boat for most of the movie, stopping at increasingly dilapidated villages along the way, and there is rain, constant and torrential. Water is an element to which the protagonists return again and again - it is treacherous, and they can't escape it. As the film goes on, tellingly, they sometimes even seek it out. Lanterns are lit to float across the water, guide lights to show lost ghosts the way to the land of the dead. The further they go downriver, the stranger things get, the less attached to normalcy they become. They are at sea, they are rudderless. They are in over their head. They are going down for the third time.

It'd be easy to say that this is about a mother who goes crazy when her child dies, but that'd be reductive and it also misses the point that this voyage into the heart of darkness isn't just about Jeanne. Paul is also carrying his own grief and guilt and it drives him to make bad decisions as well. He may seem like a voice of reason, but he's equally as haunted and damaged by what's happened - and as we come to discover, his role in what happened, which may explain his willingness to indulge Jeanne - and the further they go, the more his ability to contain his own grief and guilt and rage fails him. The further they go (how far are you willing to go?), the more who they are is stripped away (who will survive, and what will be left of them?), until at the end of the journey, nothing remains but what kept them going to begin with, and in a place utterly alien and absent of anything we know as life, they are swallowed whole.

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


  1. This was more "Apocalypse Now" meets "Gerry" than a traditional horror movie, but I remember it pretty clearly several years after seeing it, so that's a recommendation of sorts, I guess. I feel like it's a movie that would work on parents more than the child-free, though...

  2. I can tell you it works very, very well on people who've lost children.