Monday, April 21, 2014

Contracted: Danger Close

A lot of horror is metaphor or allegory (Alley Gory would be a good name for a horror movie blog. Just not this one.) or something otherwise representative of other, bigger, scarier terrors. We watch scary movies as a way to deal with real-world fears in a safe and vicarious way, through oblique symbolism, so this theory goes. Giant ants are nuclear terror. Zombies are communism or loss of identity (which is also sort of communism). Monsters are safe versions of unsafe things, the real-world fear held at arms’ length by myth.

Which I think is what makes Contracted compelling and problematic at the same time. There’s next to no distance between the symbol and what it’s symbolizing, and the end result is queasy and unsettling. Two days after seeing it, I’m still not sure exactly how I feel about it.

This is the story of a young woman named Samantha. Samantha is in sort of a transitional place in her life - we don’t know much about her to start, and details are layered in slowly over the length of the movie in the form of asides and inferences. The picture we end up putting together isn’t especially pretty, but more about that later. Samantha is on her way to a party and keeps trying someone named Nikki on her phone, but Nikki isn’t picking up. So Samantha’s alone at the party, a fact that gets all kinds of significant looks from her friend Alice, who seems bound and determined to get Samantha really trashed. There’s also Riley, who screams “Nice Guy” from go, with all of the problems that tag carries with it, and Zain, who’s more than happy to offer Samantha drugs - you know, just for old time’s sake. She is surrounded by people who profess to care about her and none of them have her best interests in mind.

Nikki never shows up to the party or answers any of Samantha’s calls, and dejected, Samantha ends up pretty trashed. And that’s when he appears. A pleasant, nondescript man she does not recognize. He is friendly and just a little out of focus (as everything is) - he came with “a friend.” That’s all he says. And he hands her the drink he says is hers, and she drinks it, and the moment is exactly as thick with dread as you would think. And the results are exactly what you think, with her and him in his car, everything slipping in and out of consciousness as she pleads with him to stop.

Cut to the next morning, Samantha waking up in her own bed with only flashes of what happened the night before. Her mother calls her to breakfast and surprise surprise, Mom is no better than her friends, any maternal feelings she has are bound up inextricably with feelings of disapproval and control. A lot goes unspoken between them, but we get the feeling that it’s all right there, below the surface, years of fights. It’s tense and unsympathetic as Samantha goes to meet Nikki, who it transpires is Samantha’s...girlfriend? Ex-girlfriend? It’s hard to tell, and again, the whole story is played out over the course of the film but it’s apparent right away that Nikki’s humoring Samantha. There’s no real affection there, just possession and performed defiance of heteronormativity. Nikki’s there until she isn’t. She’s there until she leaves.

(And this brings me to one of the things that gives the film its unsettling feel - everyone in this film is just two steps off from being plausible people. The performances aren’t over-the-top enough for stylization or camp, but they’re still oddly glib or cartoonish while still being low-key and underplayed. It’s strange and dislocating, and it’s especially evident in Nikki, who ticks every checkbox on some weird adolescent male idea of what a lesbian is.)

So this is Samantha’s world in total: She’s trying to be herself, but everyone around her has their own ideas about who she is, and she only exists to other people to the extent that she serves their needs. And she’s not feeling so good after the other night - are hangovers supposed to last so long? And what’s that weird tracery of veins working its way up her torso? And why is she bleeding so much and so heavily?

What happened to her that night?

It’s probably not giving away too much to say that when Samantha was raped (because she was, without question), she got something from her rapist. Something beyond venereal and well into the realms of body horror. She has nothing good or healthy in her life, and she has been raped, and now she is literally dying from the inside. It's spiritual and emotional malaise made literal - the damage is apparent to everyone, but nobody takes it as seriously as they should until it's too late, or they misunderstand it. Nobody recognizes what Samantha is going through and the dynamic she has with everyone in her life drives her to keep hiding it, to keep making bad choices, to look for love and support where there's none to be found.

She is a dead woman walking, and you can see how this is a problematic metaphor. She has been raped and now she is dead inside. What is this saying? Is it responsible to communicate this in a film? Or is it appropriate to think of it like I think of Srpski Film, a serious story told using the sharpest images at the pitch of a scream? I don’t know, and that uncertainty pervades my reading of this film.

But I can do my hand-wringing on my own time. As to the film itself, it's just on the right side of the line from didactic - the metaphor isn't veiled or subtle at all, but nor does anyone really call attention to it. The imagery used to tell it likewise walks a line between the understated and horrific. There's a nice mix of subtle effects and more painful, disgusting body horror stuff that tightens the screws nicely as the movie unwinds, where we’re given little hints as to where things are headed, and the hints get larger and larger and the consequences get worse and worse. It’s sunny Los Angeles, so everything is bright and sharp and hard around Samantha, who wanders from place to place, helpless against the forces marshalled against her and waging war from within and without. In its most gruesome moments (physically and emotionally - the devastation is total), there’s a kinetic energy to it that lends it power, the cartoon turned into a nightmare. There are touches of visual flair here and there in the framing of shots and use of different camera techniques to communicate Samantha’s disintegration, and though the end is a little overdone, it’s only by a matter of a few seconds and hardly ruins everything that came before. It’s maybe a little too on-the-nose, but that’s about it.

In the end, it’s a tough call. It's hard to watch because it really is about Samantha's life disintegrating around her (and Samantha disintegrating along with it) and there's really not a sympathetic ear for her or much opportunity for agency and redemption. Even when she does stand up and take charge of her life, she mostly ends up doing the absolute wrong thing, because nobody’s been there to really help her look out for her own interests. It reminds me of the way we spend the entire run time of Dancer in the Dark watching Selma's life fall apart and come to a bad end, and that bypasses a lot of more conventional horror movie morality for something darker. It takes a real-world horror - the horror of victimization, physical and emotional - and equates it with its monstrous counterpart instead of making one a distant symbol for the other. That’s either audacious or dismissive, and my uncertainty at which it is is part - not all, but part - of the reason I’m still haunted by this film.

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Available on Amazon Instant Video
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