A weird, intense man keeps his seven-year-old daughter locked away in their house while training her to act like a “normal” person because if she doesn’t, bad guys will kill them both.
But enough about me.
In this movie, Emile Hirsch (Killer Joe)—who is not a young, skinny Jack Black, don’t be fooled—plays “Dad” to Chloe (Lexy Kolker) while nursing a seemingly paranoid fantasy about “bad men” who want to kill them. We immediately know not all is as it seems because Chloe is, indeed, a freak. In particular, she can see into remote locations—and be seen in those locations—though she’s not aware she’s doing it.
Chloe desperately wants a mom, since her own mother (Mary, Amanda Crew, “Silicon Valley”) died when she was a baby. Dad has a plan to train her to be normal, then let her live with the family across the street neighbors, which is something Chloe desperately wants. So much so that she projects into her future foster sister’s bedroom and makes her pretend to be her mother, cuddle her and tell her she loves her.
Dad, too, seems odd, since he insists he can only protect her if he doesn’t fall asleep. And when he does fall asleep, things happen: The lights in the house go on, the water starts working, strange noises emerge from outside, etc.
I won’t spoil it, because this movie works by imposing a number of layers on top of each other, each of which by itself is fairly ordinary, but which keep you engaged until the next layer is pulled back. It takes about 30 minutes to get a strong picture of what’s going on, for example, with the mysterious ice cream man (Bruce Dern, aged hippie, and, oh, I dunno, From Up On Poppy Hill) who is aggressively trying to lure Chloe into his truck. But then you have the mystery of what the deal is with Dad. And is the (really hot) Federal Agent (Grace Park, who appears mostly on TV and in my better dreams) good or evil or somewhere in between, and more importantly: can she be trusted?
The thing that works about this movie is that it sets up its rules (which are admittedly rather broad, conceptually) and then lives by them. You learn X, and that explains certain phenomena that come before (and more importantly, in some ways, after). Then you learn Y, which explains some other stuff, and so on until you get a fairly good (if simple) picture of what the world is and how our characters play their roles in it.
And shock of shocks, for a movie which is about existential crises for all of humanity, it’s rather non-judgmental. The second half of the movie, when it seems like it could veer into straight up action, reminds us that what we’re viewing is actually pretty horrifying. There’s a lot of murder going on—and it’s all pretty understandable. Which is a kind of uncomfortable feeling. Obviously, we’re biased one way by the mere orientation of the telling—but on the other hand, we (the audience) would be the very definite losers of any the scenarios that play out where we’re rooting for one side over the other.
It’s shockingly nuanced for a modern movie, much less a horror movie, and it does it without being political. I was worried because of this one line (naturally played in the trailer) where they talk about “making people illegal”—a red flag, stay-away sign for anyone not wanting to be bludgeoned with some heavy-handed pro-illegal-alien message. But in the movie, there’s: a) no connection made (or even reasonably plausible) to our modern immigration crises; b) no real judgment as to whether or not “making people illegal” is good or bad. And not just immigration, the movie skillfully avoids any real sociopolitical commentary on homeschooling, racism or any of the other low-hanging fruit lazy writers go to these days.
The later half gets a little action-y, as mentioned, but there’s still a fair amount of horror, or at least horrific moments. The ending, involving a hellfire missile, edges into goofy, but in a sort of expected cinematic way, kind of like Ready Or Not‘s somewhat bombastic denouement. It didn’t bug me much. It’s still technically summer, after all. Also, that last section is a good, suspenseful build-up with a little cat-and-mouse between the (hot) federal agent and dad, as the latter stalls for time and the former is smart enough to put the pieces together
Besides being hot, federal agent woman is kind of a complex character. She comes off as a bleeding heart at times early on (when she’s on TV) but then she’s as tough and no-nonsense as her character would really have to be. Top notch acting, which is true of all the principals. Emile Hirsch’s torment bubbles under the surface but ends up explaining a lot of his nigh-hysteria, as he literally lives an existence no one else is for nearly seven years. (This makes perfect sense in context.) Amanda Crew has limited screen time but she makes the most of it, being both sympathetic on the one hand, and a little scary on the other (much like Dad). Why, Bruce Dern nearly convinces me he’s not thoroughly evil. (I kid the Dern, he’s quite good here, though I think his nose hairs should get 10% of his fee.)
Speaking of small amounts of screen-time they do a lot with, the across the street neighbors played by Ava Telek, Matty Finochio and especially Michelle Harrison do great work in their one main scene. And a special shout-out to the thuggish Alex Paunovic, who provides the climactic moments of the film with its weird mix of horror and comedy. Paunovic and (sidekick federal agent) Reese Alexander were in Dead Rising: Watchtower, an earlier attempt by writer/director team Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say this movie is better (not having seen the former) but I don’t think it will be very popular. Actually, I’m seeing now that it was only released into 111 theaters which means it probably won’t have a chance to be very popular, which is—well, it’s probably sensible from a business perspective. This story really inverts some common and very popular movie tropes, similar to Brightburn, which had much bigger names attached and got a much wider release and (I imagine) was a lot less challenging.
As I said early on: There’s a whole lot of murder in this movie and you really end up understanding all of it. That makes a man uncomfortable. And most people don’t like to be uncomfortable.