This being a grim week at the theater, I turn to a Netflix original that came out this month, Horse Girl. Not without interest, but not without flaw.
Sarah is a quirky, socially awkward young woman living in a bright, pastel world. This world is very small in scope. She connects mostly with her (much older or much younger) co-workers at a craft store, her former horse Willow (let’s just say there was an accident and liability involved), and her roommate Nikki, who kindly (if condescendingly) tries to set Sarah up with real people, instead of the television show characters that Sarah fantasizes over. Upon meeting a man who shares a name with one of these, it’s all an excited Sarah can talk about. “Maybe don’t…” says Nikki, trying to shift the conversation. Sarah laughs when nothing is funny and smiles when she isn’t happy. Lacking the courage to initiate real contact with others, she’s content to spend her birthday alone… or at least she says she is. “I guess those plans fell through…” she plaintively responds to questions from her roommate, knowing full well there were no plans. There never are.
In writing that paragraph, I realize the darkness of the tone and setting of Horse Girl, a Netflix original starring and co-written by the lovely Alison Brie and directed by Jeff Baena. I remark on this, because the first third, possibly even half of the film, is directed, shot and acted as if it were ready to bloom into a run-of-the-mill early 2000’s quirky comedy, where cutely broken people find each other and piece each other together. Knowing how it all reaches a climax, I realize that I was lulled into a false sense of security, never being able to have predicted where the film ultimately leads.
Sarah (Brie) you see, needs everything just so. The paint at the craft store not too thick, but not too thin. Willow should be brushed a certain way. Her car must be parked in the right spot, with the club lock. A 1990 Volvo could be tempting for thieves, you see. Sometimes things go wrong… she thought she set the alarm. Where did that lost time go? Why was her empty car in the middle of the road, keys still in the ignition? When her roommate’s boyfriend spends the night, why does he find her near comatose in the kitchen? “It’s sleepwalking; my mom always said I have an active imagination…”. She is often found at her mother’s side… graveside, that is. The headstone is as meticulously maintained as everything else in her life. By tightly keeping everything under control, perhaps Sarah is stemming off or banishing her family’s history of mental illness… her mother died by her own hand. Her grandmother on the streets, after being institutionalized. People always told Sarah she looks just like her grandmother… a mirror image… almost a clone.
While watching Horse Girl, the tone feels almost cliché… until the pieces start coming together. Or perhaps until they start falling apart. As Sarah notices more gaps in her memory, her behavior grows more erratic. What began as quirky and cute feels harried and stressed. What seems to be a sweet date between awkward people sharing a love of sci-fi and aliens grows more barbed as Sarah’s interest seems a little too keen… “you’re taking this really seriously…” her prospective partner says. The film starts to take it more seriously too. We see inside Sarah’s dreams. Where does she know the people in them from? She should follow them. Why is everyone overreacting? I needed to use an alias. I don’t know who’s listening, who’s watching… we see her thoughts without needing an inner monologue. As Sarah’s certainty and sanity starts to crumble, so does the narrative cohesion of the film. The line between dream and reality blurs. Are we seeing into Sarah’s subconscious or is she truly acting out the behavior we witness? Who knows what? The audience? The filmmaker? What is there left to believe?
The way the film portrays the erosion of Sarah’s world is done most effectively, creating a tense, harried, claustrophobic and paranoid atmosphere totally at odds with the film’s beginning. As its momentum lurched nauseatingly forward, I found myself becoming more enraptured with the proceedings, even as I became less and less certain of what was actually transpiring. All by design, I would have to think, and deftly done at that. Music, editing and camera all work in the service of this vision. In some ways, the closest recent corollary to this film that comes to mind is Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane of 2018. That film seemed to have more coherent aesthetic intentions and purpose however. As atmospherically effective as Horse Girl is, I was left fully unsatisfied at its conclusion. Was this meant as a portrait of a woman coming undone? A genre exercise, an experiment in unease? A comment on familial ties, social decay and isolation? Horse Girl is all of, and therefore none of, those things. In 2020 I feel that a film about mental illness needs to provide more for the audience than a mere sensory experience. Where is this all going and why? For dramatic and narrative purposes these questions can’t, and shouldn’t always be answered, but without some ultimate hints the whole enterprise can feel almost exploitative. Horse Girl, despite its aesthetic interest lacks that deeper meaning, and, bereft of meaning, ultimately feels bereft of purpose. But as this film proves, that doesn’t always matter in the moment.
Some of my brothers tease me about my supposed “pretentious” taste in films. Nonsense. Just because I think the best films are slow, black and white and depressing doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy some broadly popular entertainment as well. For the first 30 minutes or so of Birds of Prey, I felt I was happily in that niche. The colors popped, the action was swift and spunky, the characters energetic and the soundtrack blaring. I was settling into the story, and happy to go along for the ride. But then it felt as if the ride malfunctioned, we missed the station, and I was stuck on an endless loop: seeing the same sights, taking the same turns and shouting breathlessly to the attendant to let me off.
Birds of Prey is the story of the former Harleen Quinzell, now known as Harley Quinn (energetically, and fairly entertainingly played by the lovely Margot Robbie… more on the performance as we go deeper), a former psychiatrist who embarked on a life of crime after falling in love with her most famous patient, the legendary Joker (a warning to all professionals to not blur boundaries with clients). As told in a cutely animated intro sequence, they’ve broken up, Harley is out on the streets and in between bouts of drinking, screaming and fighting, she gets revenge on her beau in a most fiery special effects showcase. This sets off a chain of events that puts all of our pieces on the board: an investigation by a seasoned cop tired of being overlooked, a connection to the shadowy underworld ruled by an unhinged crime boss, the sultry lounge singer ready to double-cross him and a deadly assassin hell-bent on revenge. Forget any connection to comic books, this has the makings of a good noir regardless of the source material. What a shame then, that this bird never gets off the ground.
Fingers can be pointed in several directions, but I think at its most basic level, the problem is with the source material itself. Harley Quinn really isn’t that interesting of a character. She has always been defined by her connection to, and relationship with, the Joker, a more well-established figure in comic lore (seen any movies about him recently?). Even though the whole theme of the film is her attempt to break away from that sense of being defined by someone else, the screenplay ultimately doesn’t give her enough to do, and Robbie, despite giving it her all, can only wring so much out the character’s established and defining traits: a weird accent and word choice that feels like it comes out of 40’s era animation. Maybe good for some TV episodes, but grating in a two-hour feature film.
The way this flawed character’s story is told is another severe handicap. As indicated, all the material for a good little noir are there, but they just aren’t utilized effectively. The screenplay is a murky mess. The first 30 minutes go heavy on a chipper voice-over by Robbie that help to ground the tone, but as the movie progresses it starts to seem more and more an attempt to fill in narrative gaps that the screenplay forgot about. Shifts in time and place are jarringly explained away with some jokes in this fashion, but it feels like a cover for bad editing. I wasn’t quite sure of too many plot nuances after the main event was set in motion.
I guess it’s basically this: the narcissistic criminal boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor clearly having fun, though the campy character leans a little too much on the toxic trope of feminine characteristics in men being perceived as villainous) is expecting the shipment of a diamond that will somehow be the key to more money and power, jaded cop Renee Montoya (great to see Rosie Perez, though it feels like she walked in from a different movie) gets wise to the situation because she’s being informed by Roman’s club chanteuse who goes by the name of Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett Bell, who gets some great action scenes). I must admit I can only throw up my hands in defeat before I can explain how Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress ties into it all, but uh, she looks cool and has an attitude.
None of the action matters if we can’t care about the ultimate outcome, and sadly I found it repetitious. Harley kicking the snot out of people to a classic rock soundtrack is admittedly pretty cool the first two or three times, but eventually I found myself just getting bored; the kiss of death for an action movie. Admittedly, I have this problem with most comic book films. They become a sensory overload. So much is happening that my eyes glaze over, I can’t even parse what’s happening on the screen. The final third of the film just numbed my brain.
I have to say something about the tonal shifts in the film. DC was wise to allow a female director (Cathy Yan, whose previous work I am unfamiliar with) to helm a female centric story. It’s certainly better in that regard than its predecessor, 2016’s Suicide Squad, proverbial among my friends as the nadir of this type of film, and certainly not a piece of feminist cinema if the number of shots focused on Robbie’s rear-end were any indication. Birds of Prey is superior to that, but It feels very jarring to me for a movie to have silly bodily function jokes at one moment, and some disturbing shots of near assault of women in another. The more serious comic book movie template has of course been set recently by Todd Phillips’ Joker, which is much more tonally consistent than this film.
But hey, all deconstruction aside, the merits of this type of film rise or fall on how entertaining it was. Sadly, for me, not very. All the cool stunts, clever directorial flourishes and classic rock on the soundtrack couldn’t hide the fact that there was no core, no heart to this movie. All style and not a lot of substance, it was an empty experience, emptier than the midweek matinee theater as I walked out.
One and a Half Stars.
~Fr. Michael Carter
I was shocked about how much I liked Gretel and Hansel. Let's come to terms with it.
I’ll admit it right off the bat, I wasn’t expecting this one. Gretel and Hansel is a horror movie that was unleashed in the January/February studio clearinghouse season. Usually the only thing frightening about this time frame is that it happens to be when studios haunt movie theaters with all of the undead releases that they couldn’t fit elsewhere on the schedule. Schlocky horror movies are the stock-in-trade of this time, but occasionally other genre films, typically the puzzling or ill-conceived, rear their heads as studios essentially shrug them off, unaware of how to market them, and hoping that they somehow recoup some fraction of their budget. Wanting to see SOMETHING, anything, I walked in with the lowest of expectations and found solace in the advertised (short) hour and a half running time.
But then something unexpected happened. “That’s an interesting shot. Hmm, the lighting was surprisingly good there. The atmosphere actually feels really eerie. This music seems very effective. That’s an interesting directorial choice…” As my inner monologue continued to be surprised by more and more of what was transpiring on screen, I found that instead of liking this movie “in spite of itself”, Gretel and Hansel is actually a spectacular little horror movie that not only drew me in, but made me think of the impact that certain “art-school” horror flicks of recent vintage are starting to have on more mainstream product… something that actually makes me excited for the future of a genre that in recent years has had more than a few stakes in its heart.
The film is set in a plague-ridden, famine infested fairy tale land of indeterminate era and location, where the sun rarely shines and no dark forest is ever bereft of fog (I’m being flippant but the film’s cinematography, set design and costumes are all incredibly effective). Teenaged Gretel (an effective Sophie Lillis, who I know best from 2017’s It: Chapter One; how fun must it be for a teenage girl to specialize in horror movies?) provides for us a moody, slightly over-written inner monologue that sets the stage for the grim proceedings. Suffice it to say that in the murky past, the village had to cast out its most beautiful child. Lore seems to indicate that she dwells in the woods, luring the present children away. “Be careful about accepting gifts” or some iterations thereof, often slip out of Gretel’s mouth, providing not only foreshadowing but some idea of the inner angst of this teenager, plainly dressed in gray garb and delivering faux-archaic lines in an offbeat (and off-putting) demeanor. Gretel is very protective of her younger brother Hansel (Sam Leakey, doing fine in his acting debut), and tries to shield him from some of the cruelty of the world, such as when she declines to go into detail about her refusal of a job cleaning for a lecherous old townsman, who expects her to do more than cook and sew (the exploitation of women is an undercurrent in the proceedings, though handed rather unartfully throughout. The film’s biggest flaws are in its screenplay and themes). One thing however she cannot shield Hansel from is their lack of food. Cast out of the home for that reason by their shadow of a mother, the two siblings find themselves alone in the dark forest. Maybe they’ll find a convent to stay at, maybe they’ll find some woodsmen. Maybe they’ll dig their own graves and be done with it all.
It is hard to articulate the tone of the film. A creative use of light, darkness, framing and geometry makes every shot feel as if there is something unspeakably sinister just out of reach. Almost claustrophobic in its impact, the electronically based score (interestingly credited only to “Rob”) serves to contribute to the sensation of everything feeling evil, everything full of corrosion, everything closing in. In many ways, the closest corollaries are the works of someone like Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) or Robert Eggers (The Witch, an obvious influence) but in some ways I felt almost a Kubrickian Shining vibe in the way that everything taken as a whole really started to get under my skin, really made me unsettled. It’s not a vibe for everyone, but this reviewer was dazzled.
Suffice it to say that a house is found in the woods. No candy in this version, but an endless supply of warmly lit banquets lurk within, along with a hairless cat and the too-eager smile of Alice Krige’s witch… well, we at least know she’s a witch, even if the characters at present do not. In some intriguingly lit and designed set pieces, the witch uses their hunger to gain their trust. Hansel is sold on their new lodgings right out of the gate, though the careful Gretel is suspicious of gifts… but the witch slowly increases her grip on Gretel as well, telling her of secret knowledge the rest of the world wouldn’t want for her, how society will keep her (as a woman) on the margins. Of how she will need to set her true self free. As we have mentioned, the feminine subtext is awkwardly handled at times, and though we can mostly agree with what the old witch is saying, it is the undertone that makes us (and Gretel) pause.
As the witch tightens her grip on Gretel, events seem to push Hansel away, and through unsettling dream sequences we see the witch’s true (younger) form (played by Jessica De Gouw, looking for all the world like a goth girl you went to undergrad with). Things build to a climax, and if anything, they are wrapped up too quickly at the end while other pacing points occasionally drag. All of the proceedings are held together by director Oswald Perkins (son of Anthony, he of Psycho fame. Good gig for the son), and despite the flaws of narrative and pacing, the consistent aesthetic of unspeakable dread is plenty effective.
There’s no two ways about it: I loved this movie. Whatever it was going for worked for me, and then some. The sense of dread and unease it built was palpable. The look, the costumes the music all came together in a coherent and cogent aesthetic, with only a momentarily clunky screenplay getting in the way. There’s no way I should claim a late January PG-13 horror movie as one of most effective things I’ve seen recently, right? Well… why the heck can’t I?
Three and a half stars.
~Fr. Michael Carter
The heart of the Society of Saint Edmund’s mission is serving where the need is greatest, a credo that has led us to four core ministries: Social Justice, Education, Spiritual Renewal and Pastoral Ministry. It is through these core ministries that we live out a faith-based life of service and make a real difference in people’s lives by bringing them closer to God.