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Friday, 7 June 2013

Forever's End (2013)

Director: J C Schroder
Stars: Charity Farrell, Lili Reinhart, Warren Bryson and David Wetzel

This week, I've often felt like I was at the Dances with Films festival in Hollywood, even though I haven't left Phoenix once. Three features which I thoroughly enjoyed at this year's Phoenix Film Festival (and said so here in reviews) screened there, along with a local short that showed here last year. Coincidentally, I reviewed a fourth film, House of Good and Evil, as a submission, within the week before it closes Dances with Films. Now, uncoincidentally, here's a fifth feature, through the magic of connections. It's a good feeling to know that filmmakers appreciate my wriiting and let other filmmakers know at festivals that they might submit their work to me too. Thanks, Paul! Of course, now I'll find whether those other filmmakers are as happy with what I have to say. Not all films are made equal, after all. The good news is that Forever's End is a good one too, worthy of checking it out as it premieres tonight at Dances with Films, or whenever you get a chance.

Like House of Good and Evil, it's a thought provoking ride through the psyche of the lead female character, framed as a psychological thriller that's so sparsely cast that we can't help but focus on the little details of the few characters we see. If that film's cast list was condensed down to a bare minimum, this one goes far beyond it. Only four actors grace the screen in just over an hour and a half and one of those has almost nothing to do. As you might imagine, however good the script, its success lies primarily in the hands of its leading lady, Charity Farrell. If she wasn't up to the task, this picture would be in dire straits. Fortunately, she does a capable, sympathetic job that keeps us engaged throughout, even if she doesn't bring that extra something to the mix that Rachel Marie Lewis did in House of Good and Evil. It's a good job because for quite a while, she is the only person we see. The film begins, we watch her establish the grounding for the story and that's it.

It begins with a science fiction sort of feel. A woman staggers, alternately in a dark cityscape and a bright pastoral setting. She appears to have been stabbed in the side and she's losing blood. She also has a gun, though we don't know if those two facts are connected. The camera staggers with her a little, perhaps in sympathy because there's nobody else around. 'Sometimes I wonder where the time went,' she narrates. All she ever wanted was to be left alone, in a world without a structure, without any rules. Now she has her wish, because six years ago the world ended. She hasn't seen anyone since. Beyond missing a lot of things, she looks remarkably good. If I take a couple of days off to write, I'll probably forget to shower, but six years after the apocalypse and Sarah is still taking care of herself and her farm, dusting and cleaning and washing the floor. She keeps busy to stay sane, she tells us. Being alone means nobody to talk to, after all.
Clearly this isn't going to be a busy film. There's a great deal of quiet here, highlighting that the real story is going on as much between the dialogue as in it, if you can call Sarah bitching at her flaky generator dialogue. For the most part, she doesn't make a lot of noise. Unless she's playing the piano, we hear the sounds of nature and her somewhat soothing narration. The only voice we hear other than hers is one in her dreams, a man reciting to her, 'Don't. Look. Away.' I rather liked this approach. It's certainly refreshing in 2013 to see a post-apocalyptic movie that utterly avoids showing us an apocalypse. We get no nuclear explosions, no zombies, no collapse of civilisation, just Sarah White escaping to the countryside with knife wounds in her side. What surprised me more was the rather active editing. For a film with so much room, the editor clearly didn't intend us to sit back and relax, so he kept the cuts coming, even in the most wide open scenes.

Perhaps this is to remind us that this is a thriller rather than a deep relaxation course. Certainly, Sarah jumps when a storm builds and her front door starts banging. You'd think that six years of utter solitude as the last woman on Earth would be enough to get past fearing a home invasion, but when she investigates, she finds a young lady about to collapse outside her door: her sister, Lily. Now, this appears to be the key moment. For Sarah, those six years alone are over and she can begin to share her life again with someone close to her. For us, we wonder the odds of some catastrophic event causing the extinction of our entire race, except for two people, who turn out to be sisters. Quite obviously something is going on, and the real key moment was five minutes earlier, as Sarah kicked her generator back into action, slipped on the floor and cracked her head. That may not be the beginning of the film, but it's the real beginning of its story.

There are a few hints here about what we might be looking at, but writer/director J C Schroder is happy to keep us guessing for a long while. Any film that begins with the end of the world has to involve survival as a key element. Casting not one but two leading ladies to populate this world suggests another angle to survival, especially as these two sisters appear to have matching knife wounds. 'It's not over,' Lily tells Sarah. 'It's never over.' By this time, we're only thirteen minutes into the story, which continues to throw out questions but resists any attempt to answer them as yet, so we can be sure it isn't over. How can only two sisters survive an apocalypse? Why did Lily take six years to come home? What's with the matching scars? Do mentions of Daddy, who was always right and prompts reactions in nightmares, hint at abuse? What importance does Sarah's necklace hold? That's what seems to conjure up the most emotion.
While these questions are initially mostly rational ones, they soon start to slip. Sarah knocks down a set of wind chimes outside because they're annoying her, only for them to promptly reappear in her front room hanging from a chandelier. One night, Lily tells Sarah not to go outside, and doing so prompts her to shoot an intruder dead at her front door. The end of the world is getting really busy all of a sudden. All these moments are far too deliberate to be cinematic goofs on the part of the filmmakers, so they have to carry meaning. This is a psychological thriller, not a supernatural horror story, so it's not too difficult to get onto the right lines. The bad news is that it's slower and less suspenseful than House of Good and Evil; the good news is that it's clear earlier that we should figure out what's really going on so we're more directly caught up in the puzzle of the script, even before a third character knocks on the farmhouse door to explain that the world is still there.

To be brutally honest, if I hadn't watched this very soon after House of Good and Evil, I'd probably have been more impressed. That's not to say that I didn't like it a lot, as I did and I'd recommend it highly, but the two films carry a lot of similarities and this one comes off second best. Even as we're actively engaged in fitting intriguing pieces together into a big picture that's strong the first time through but adds nuances on further viewings, some scenes drag and don't seem to fit. The story is a worthy and subtle one, but during the second act it's often elusive and rather passive. On the other hand, the editing is far too lively, enough to make us very aware of it, which isn't a good thing unless it's trying to tell us something, which it doesn't appear to do. Also, while it's far from a handheld movie that won't cause anyone to get motion sickness, the camera is a floating thing that moves a lot more than it should.

And as I write this, I feel overly critical. I liked House of Good and Evil on a first viewing and really liked it on a second, but while I'll happily come back to it again in the future, it's an open book to me now. A couple of times through Forever's End and I'm still asking questions and not in a bad way. I believe I know how to read the story, which I can't explain here without spoilers, and I know what it leads up to in the end, but I'm still interpreting some of the details that crop up on our way there. There are layers upon layers here and I'm very open to the possibility that some of those elusive plot points in the middle part of the film will suddenly leap out and make their meanings clear at last. Of course, I'm also open to the possibility that they won't and I've got what I'm going to get out of the story because that's all that there is. Even if so, it screams out for discussion. Is it fundamentally impressionistic or do the details really matter?
I have to be careful here with my words, but the nature of the story is such that each of the four actors we see are tasked less with playing traditional characters and more with playing readings of characters. That means it's much harder than usual to rate how they all did. The toughest job absolutely went to Charity Farrell and she grounds the film well, delving very deeply indeed into Sarah's mind but deliberately underplaying as she did so. It's easier for an actor to do something than to hint that they're thinking something, after all. Lili Reinhart is capable as Lily, but is best when bouncing off Sarah. Again, that's less her fault and more the nature of what she's in the film to do. I was less impressed with Warren Bryson as Ryan, the third character with a decent amount of screen time, but he's the least traditional of the three. There are points when he does good work, especially late on, but there are others where he just stands there like a male model.

It's Farrell's acting and Schroder's script that are staying with me thus far, with a shoutout for the score by Douglas Edward and Douglas Romayne, which is as beautifully subtle an underpinning as the editing is overly obvious. Their names are actually the biggest in the film, as their credits are exemplary. There's a song to accompany the end credits that's also haunting; it's by the ethereal and prolific singer/songwriter, Mimi Page, but sung as a duet by the two lead actresses in the film, whose good voices carry agreeable emotion in their imperfections. I found that I appreciated the camerawork and editing of this section, really a music video rather than any extension of the story, more than I did that in the film itself. It adds visual style and soars rather than floats. While Schroder is highly experienced in the industry, this is his feature length debut as a director and it invites viewers to watch it again and again while they wait for his next film. I'll be waiting too.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I would interpret this movie as her dad murdered by the guy and her dad told her to run. She didn't so she got stabbed and died. After death she became a ghost trying to find her way home. In doing that she finds out her sister was murdered also by the same guy. At the end of movie she finally found her way back to the city where she was stabbed. She is a ghost now.

Anonymous said...

This movie is a portrayal of the internal struggle Sarah is going through trying to cope with her father's murder and the attack on her. The entire movie is taking place in her mind. The world ended when her father was killed. The apocalyptic world is her retreat into her personal world, living in her own private experience. She keeps busy to keep from going insane. She goes on like this for six years. Her sister is a part of her own psyche that she "converses" and goes back and forth with in trying confront and cope with the trauma that befell her. That's why she has the same wounds. The appearance of the stranger is her memory of the terrible event emerging. She violently rejects it, killing it/him. The appearance of Ryan is the memory emerging even stronger. Part of herself, sister Lili, still resists dealing with the pain and want's Sarah to reject him. But her memory and emotions overtake her and in the bright light of day she finally confronts and accepts what happened and is able to leave her isolation. Rejoining the world she "goes back to the city". The line from the killer "don't look away" is her inability to erase the tragedy and the inevitability that she was going to come to terms with what happened eventually. This movie moves kind of slowly, but is still very intriguing, really a very good movie.

Anonymous said...

....just adding to my previous comment...the wind chimes signal the arrival of feelings and memories, it's time to think about it. Kind of like an alarm, it's time to wake up. Sarah doesn't want it and tears the chimes down. Then the chimes reappear hanging on the chandelier, the "light of truth". She tears it down along with the whole light fixture. After Ryan's entrance he asks, "you haven't left the farm in six years?" Sarah has isolated herself emotionally and psychologically, but as part her withdrawal hasn't physically left the farm either. He tells her there are still people in the cities, in other words she could reconnect with people. She can't believe it because she's not ready. It's Ryan the killer telling her this because it's the memory of him and the devastating experience she has to deal with and overcome. It's either her or her "sister". She will either stay in her current state and die or breakout. She chooses to get out of her "apocalyptic world" and "kills her sister"/her impulse to try and protect herself. She's coming back to reality and Ryan the killer memory says she never had a sister and that her wound/pain of memory resulting from what is actually her emotional struggle looks like it came from falling on the broken chandelier/light of truth. She confronts the pain and the awful reality of the assault and leaves it behind packing her things and leaving for a new life in the city. Forever's End reminds me of Pink Floyd The Wall. It's very layered. It's a movie that makes you think. Each time I watch it I get new things out of it. It's a great work of art.