Each year provides us with (at least) a few hidden gems sprinkled amongst the superheroes and newfangled special effects displays, and although this feature film debut from filmmaker Cory Finley is only now hitting theatres, it seems safe to say it likely won’t draw the size audience it deserves. If you enjoy dark, twisted, and devilishly clever films, you owe it to yourself to track down this one.
Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) stars as Amanda, someone who walks a minuscule line between neurotic and psychopath. The film’s startling and quite ominous opening features Amanda, a horse, and a large knife. Some time later, we see Amanda re-connecting with her childhood friend and boarding school brainiac Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, Split and The Witch) in what appears to be a tutoring session being held in the palatial estate where Lily lives with her mother and “evil” stepdad Mark (Paul Sparks).
What follows is the mind-bending, winding-road of us attempting to fit either or both of these characters into some “normal” category of human behavior. Instead, what lies beneath is slowly unsheathed. As Amanda and Lily interact, we especially come to realize that Amanda is drawing out what’s behind the proper front that Lily wears on a daily basis. A plot to murder the stepdad is developed, and caught in the wicked web is Anton Yelchin as Tim, a dreamer and schemer who quickly realizes the trouble these two bring. This was one of the last roles Yelchin filmed before his tragic death. His brief time on screen here reminds us of his immense talent.
An atmosphere of dread and pending doom hovers over most every scene, yet somehow it’s simultaneously funny and disturbing. We find ourselves asking if it’s OK to laugh at some of the exchanges. As Amanda explains she’s “not a bad person”, the line makes us chuckle, while also making us realize she actually believes it and we shouldn’t! As she teaches her tutor Lily “the technique”, we become convinced the line has been crossed into psychopathy.
Suburban Connecticut and its corresponding privileged life has rarely generated more queasy feelings, and with our hope for humanity in the balance, we watch Amanda and Lily bounce from plotting to problem solving and from conspiring to collaborating. The absence of empathy goes beyond disconcerting and into a feeling of resolved fear. The lack of emotions and empathy can be more frightening than vampires or fictional monsters.
Cinematographer Lyle Vincent does nice work displaying this world, and he will always deserve a mention after his sterling work on 2014’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The dark, twisted work is well accompanied by the abrupt and jarring music, and filmmaker Finley deserves recognition for crafting this creepy corner of a universe none of us want to join. His film is in the vein of something Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) might deliver, and that’s quite high praise for oddity…in fact, Odin Impetus Lowe even gets a screen credit, and he’s the opening scene horse!