Elizabeth Olsen is a talented and courageous actress. As evidenced in her excellent work in 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, she can come across as both cerebral and winsome; perfectly well-adjusted and well past insane. Her talent is evident, but she is not a miracle worker. In her new film, the soapy mishmash of a fright flick put together by the writer/director team of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (based on the Uruguayan La casa muda), Olsen is asked to play a young woman so overcome with fear and confusion she can hardly breathe — for the vast majority of the film’s entire 88-minute runtime.
The minutes are significant here, as the film is shot as if in real time. When we first meet Sarah (Olsen), she’s sitting alone on a rock facing a lake somewhere upstate. The camera hangs over her head, then follows her path back towards the family lake house where her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) are busy at work trying to repair the damage to the place before putting it on the market. As the camera continues to follow her, through the cramped, winding staircase of the dark and musty childhood getaway, it becomes clear she’s frazzled. She hears noises above her, for one thing; for another, she keeps having visions of young girls and shadowy figures. Before too long, she’s in full-on panic mode, trying desperately to escape the house and back outside, her father somewhere upstairs bleeding and only half-conscious. When her uncle returns to the confusing scene, the two of them go back into the house to try to solve the mystery of what’s been going on.
Kentis and Lau have given themselves a very high degree of difficulty with which to work: Not only is the film shot in real time (reportedly in a single, very complex, take, though I have my sincere doubts) with a single, hand-held camera, the focal length is extremely elongated such that often there’s only about six inches of frame directly in focus at all times. The cumulative effect of all these gimmicks is certainly meant to be haunting and claustrophobic, but with little or no grounding in character or situation to begin with, very little hangs together terribly satisfyingly. And as difficult a chore it is for the directors to pull this off, they’re asking their young star to carry almost the entire emotional weight of the film singlehandedly. The camera, shortened focus and all, is never far away from Olsen’s face, contorting in ever-more disturbing pantomimes of terror and unease. Spattered with blood, tears streaming down her face, she bears the full brunt of the film’s myopic vision, and just can’t carry the weight.
To be fair, there are very, very few actors living or dead who could have pulled this one off. By the time the film arrives at its pretty obvious, mind-shattering conclusion, we’ve been subjected to nearly an hour and a half of jittery camera moves, endless darkened rooms and more panicked hysteria than a sea bass stuck in a shark tank. The Blair Witch Project won acclaim and accolades in large part because it took its severe budgetary and technical limitations and used them to its advantage; here, the filmmakers have decided to test the audience’s resolve with what they regarded as a dangerously assiduous conceit, and have ended up instead with a nearly inert piece of drivel.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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