Tuesday 14 February 2012

Familiar (2011)

Director: Richard Powell
Stars: Robert Nolan, Astrida Auza and Cathryn Hostick
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon V in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my festival reviews.

It's a pretty good sign that a film is a good one when you're still thinking about it two days later. I watched Familiar on Sunday, then watched it again on Monday as a double bill with Worm, which was made a year earlier by the same director, producer and lead actor. Now I'm thinking about both of them, individually and together, not just because they're both highly recommended short films that carry a powerful punch, but because they work well as a pair. What's more, how you read the second affects how you read the first, which then affects how you read the second and, well, you see why I'm still thinking about them. Worm was hardly a minor short film, a deluge of bitterness unleashed through a bravado performance by Robert Nolan as a twisted teacher on the edge which takes us from initial sympathy to acute discomfort. It's a movie that stays with you and shapes how you see reality. Well, trust me, Familiar is even better.

Obviously more polished from moment one, it begans as a quieter replay of the same story. The title resonates: this is very familiar indeed, as Nolan plays a twisted teacher on the edge whose bitter inner monologues drive the film forward. His wife is a jailer, his daughter a parasite. Things are OK at night when everyone is asleep, but then 'they always wake up and ruin everything'. As excellent as Nolan was in Worm, he's better still here, with more subtle and guarded bitterness. His inflections are pristine, his sarcasm deep and his condescension deeper. His mouth twitches almost as subtly as his eyes. As the film begins he hardly moves, but his twitches develop with the story and his control slips along with the walls he's patiently kept up for decades. He's been waiting for Jordan to grow up and go to college, so he can put his savings into a truck and leave his worthless existence behind. With four months to go, it all turns to crud.

It's impossible not to look into the depths of these films, because there's back story that is only available outside the movies themselves, this world obviously being carefully crafted. We know that the lead character in Worm was Geoffrey Oswald Dodd, not by watching but because it tells us that on the poster, the initials for this petty tyrant also being very deliberately chosen. Initially Familiar feels like a continuation to Geoffrey's story, but no, the lead this time out is apparently his twin brother, John. They have a great deal in common, not least a similarly bleak outlook on the world, but that they're identical twins cannot be ignored: as we think about John, we have to think about Geoffrey too. While this story only ever follows John, that link makes it a progression for both characters, which is a neat trick indeed on the part of writer/director Richard Powell. In fact, what happens here forces us to reevaluate what we learned in Worm too.

There are a number of ways to read the story that unfolds. What we see may be metaphorical, John's bitterness eating him from the inside out. It may be a physical manifestation of guilt, as he gets to act on certain impulses here that Geoffrey never got a chance to act on in Worm, and the finalé is set up by a last ditch fight against those impulses. It could be schizophrenia or some other form of insanity: 'We've always been together,' the voice in John's head tells him. 'I'm your best friend.' The title suggests a literal reading, neatly morphing both Dodds from psychopathic to sympathetic with a single twist of plot. Yet I can't ignore that these are twins. It all could be about the bond between identical twins, thus making us wonder if one is affecting the other. We see benign characters exposed as rotten and twisted, only to be prompted to wonder if one isn't dominating the other. Does one deserve our disdain and one our pity? If so, which is which?

This tortuously playful nature is reflected in the titles of the flims, both of which carry multiple meanings and could even easily be reversed. While Worm was appropriate for a drama about the inner decay of an outwardly trustworthy figure of authority, especially given that the apple metaphor is obvious for a teacher, it's just as appropriate here in a horror based variation on the same theme with particularly gruesome special effects. Similarly, Familiar, which has an overt supernatural meaning in this horror tale, could also be applied to the overriding fear invoked by the first film, with its revelation that even the most familiar people may not be anywhere near who you think they are inside. So is this film, as much as it stands utterly on its own without any background whatsoever, also designed to be a layer on top of its predecessor that tells us that our expectations can be or should be turned on their heads?

Maybe I'm thinking too much. Maybe these are both straightforward monologues that deserve minimalist stage adaptations so as to emphasise how great the lead roles are for Robert Nolan, who is blisteringly good. These could be radio plays and he would be magnetic, but the physical changes he builds into these performances are a joy to behold. It's no surprise to see his credits proliferating exponentially. He is certainly not going to be wanting for work any time soon and you will see his name grow for sure. That said, while he dominated Worm to the degree that it was sometimes hard to acknowledge anyone else, much of that was because it was literally all about him. Here Astrida Auza gets the opportunity to build her own character as Charlotte, John's wife, and she plays off Nolan well. Cathryn Hostick is fine as his daughter, Jordan, though there's not much for her to do. We literally don't see anyone else in 23 minutes.

Behind the camera everything is very capable, Familiar feeling very much like Fatal Pictures felt so strongly after Worm that they could raise the stakes. This is not an effects film but there are special effects here and the animatronics and make up work is very professional indeed, more sophisticated by far than I'd have expected to see in a low budget Canadian short film from an up and coming production company. Powell's direction is gloriously slow and steady, with fluid camera movements and nothing flash, just a few neatly glitchy editing moments to highlight the more strained moments. The worst thing about the film is that presumably we have another year to wait before we can see what's next. Are we going to discover that the Dodds are triplets and Nolan can add another facet to his performance as all three of them, as what we think we know after two films is shaken up yet again in a third. Is this to be a delightfully twisted trilogy?

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