Thursday, August 22, 2013

A family ripped apart

First a prelude. In some cabin in some woods some goofy looking guy (American genre-indie auteur Larry Fessenden) reaches orgasm atop a pretty, bored-looking lady. He showers. She gets butchered. He’s next. A quick dose of sex and violence—a taste of what’s to come. And, before we get too comfortable, some reassurance for the freaks that You’re Next is indeed a horror film.

Us non-freaks will be more reassured by what immediately follows this prelude: character development! An affluent older couple, their four adult offspring and the romantic partners of said offspring converge at a cottage for the couple’s 35th anniversary. The whole family so rarely gets together—thankfully, since most of them can’t stand each other, brothers Crispian (AJ Bowen) and Drake (Joe Swanberg) most especially. The reunion’s freighted with potential disasters. Mom (Barbara Crampton) is a sweet-natured, heavily medicated bag of nerves; taciturn littlest brother Felix (Nicholas Tucci) turns up with a rigorously unfriendly girlfriend named Zee (Wendy Glenn); eager-to-please Aimee (Amy Seimetz) brings her vaguely foreign-looking “intellectual filmmaker” boyfriend (Ti West) to sup with her extremely white, not terribly intellectual clan. And here’s a portentous bit of exposition: Dad (Rob Bowen) has just retired from a lucrative gig doing marketing for a defense contractor. So the specter of violence is already in the air when, just as the family launch into their first full-on squabble around the dinner table, a trio of assailants in animal masks—manifestations of the family members pent-up rage?—suddenly place the house under siege. An arrow flies through the window. It is somehow appropriate that the first one to bite it is the suspicious filmmaker.

The choice to set-up You’re Next as a family reunion is perversely clever. The idea of witnessing your own family’s endangerment, injury or slaughter is genuinely horrifying; the fact that most of the family members half-hate each other only makes their bond that much more realistic. Understandably, everyone immediately falls apart or goes numb. The only one who seems at all capable of taking control of the situation is the one who initially seemed easiest to write off. Erin (Sharni Vinson), a literature major and Crispian’s cute young Australian girlfriend—and, ahem, former student—turns out to be more than graceful under fire. She’s good at making weapons out of household objects. She’s our final girl, an outsider and protectress, and ultimately the one with whom we identify and root for.

Prolific director Adam Wingard’s latest is actually a couple of years old already—it debuted at TIFF 2011—but it’s worth the wait. Well, mostly. Simon Barrett, who also scripted Wingard’s A Horrible Way to Die, has written about 66% of an exceptionally smart and effective genre film. It’s only once the initial disorientation wears off and we begin to realize the motives behind this seemingly senseless violence that things start to get a little dumb and deflating, leading up to a hokey-jokey ending. But maybe 66% is good enough? Working with an excellent ensemble cast, half of which are also laudable independent filmmakers—besides Fessenden, Swanberg, West and Seimetz are all directors—Wingard is in full control of the film’s ominous atmospherics and delicate tonal shifts—he knows just when to let the humour override the horror, and vice versa. You’re Next is easy to recommend but hard to completely love, falling just short of something really good. Of course, the way Wingard cranks out films, there’s good reason to hope the next one will be brilliant. 

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