Sunday 13 May 2012

The Fields (2011)

Directors: Tom Mattera and David Mazzoni
Stars: Cloris Leachman and Tara Reid

Marketed as a horror movie, The Fields is much more of a psychological drama, a coming of age slice of American gothic suspense that would feel like a Stephen King story if it wasn't so subtle. That subtlety has polarised viewers. There were ten IMDb reviews when I watched the film. Six were positive, five of them gushing. Their reviewers explained in expressive, capable language how much they appreciated its slow burn and the promise of writer Harrison Smith. The other four weren't just negative, they were vitriolic. Each of these reviewers built their hate in broken English and fractured, almost unintelligible sentences, raving about how empty it all was, how nothing happens. It seems that if you're literate and you appreciate subtlety and tension, this might be a good pick, but if you can't string more than a couple of words together it obviously isn't. It certainly isn't your average beer and pizza slasher flick or zombie movie.

Any consensus to be found is in the lack of action. It opens beautifully, with a capable eye, a painter's palette and a stylish camera movement that descends into a cornfield and creeps on through it. John Avarese's score is subtle horror music to build tension, which continues until the opening credits end and we find ourselves with a sleeping boy in October 1973. He's Steven, at that awkward age where he's just starting to venture into the adult world, leaving him half brave and half scared and never quite sure which side to go with. From the very beginning he's rarely consistent, hiding under his covers after his dad gets home and starts hitting his mum but then wandering downstairs to find him waving a gun in her face. This inconsistency pervades the film as, the top names notwithstanding, Steven is our central character about whom the entire story revolves. For a while the inconsistency is maddening but eventually I appreciated it as realistic.

We meet the stars quickly. Tara Reid plays Bonnie, Steven's mum, well against type. No blonde, scantily clad airhead here, she's dark haired white trash with depth. Thoughtful and deep aren't words I ever expected to use to describe a Tara Reid role, but this is a neatly complex portrayal, all the more admirable given that she has precious little screen time to work with. Like the other characters, Bonnie isn't quite what we expect from first impressions, so not the saving grace of the family. At a first glance, she's a caring, long suffering mother who has enough strength and decision making ability to take her son to stay with his father's parents instead of her own for a couple of weeks, so she can use the space to try to mend things with Barry a long way from our story. Soon we discover her flaws, through hints and confirmations, and later we realise that her absence from the story is a little more meaningful than we might have initially felt.

Faust Checho, one of the film's producers, debuts well on screen as Barry, travelling the opposite way through our expectations, from abusive redneck low life to... well, let's just say he improves somewhat. Character depth is always welcome and it's in abundance here. All these characters are flawed, but few are without sympathy. They're well drawn enough to be believable bundles of humanity: good, bad and probably a lot in between. Certainly Bonnie and Barry are so overt combinations of good and bad that it's tough to draw conclusions, yet the situations we watch them enact invite us to do so. That we're usually wrong when we do is yet another reason some may find a problem here: passive viewers don't tend to like having assumptions and personal prejudices challenged. More active audiences will enjoy the complexity of this troubled couple, who both want to do the right thing but can't, mostly because of consistently poor judgement.

By the time Bonnie and Barry leave the film, Bonnie's parents have come and gone too, mostly because they're only there to highlight how hard her life has been. Dad is a tough, hypocritical sheriff who may have molested her, while mum may have known and done nothing about it. A snap summary would be that they appear to be upstanding people but aren't, while Barry's folks don't but are. They're Gladys and Hiney, the real adult leads here, and they're another complex pair. Overtly at constant odds with each other, they've really just become comfortable over time with each other's quirks, which makes their interplay fascinating to watch. In fact they're so well written and so well played by Cloris Leachman and Bev Appleton that it's occasionally tough to focus on Steven, whose journey into adulthood is the real point of the movie. Joshua Ormond is good at being a focus in the background but he can't compete with Leachman and Appleton.

Of course, neither can anyone else. Tara Reid may be surprisingly good as Bonnie, but a single scene opposite 85 year old Leachman demonstrates just how out of her depth she is. Gladys is as gloriously foul mouthed, judgemental and cantankerous as you might expect from Leachman, though still caring. She underplays the part if anything, most of her dialogue delivered under her breath. She spends the film in a perpetual slight cringe, which fits the dread she fosters about everything. She's happy for Steven to be free range, fade into the background and do his thing until she can hardly tell he's even there, but at the slightest provocation she starts conjuring up what ifs in language shaped from the public domain horror films she watches. A BB gun? It'll pop his eyeball like a grape! It's a peach of a part and she nails it absolutely, but its arc is weak. If it had been more substantial, this could easily have warranted yet another trophy for her cabinet.

With the story all grimy and worn down, not in substance but in tone, thankfully we have Hiney to provide a modicum of lightheartedness. This is far from a comedy, but he's the family clown and Gladys is his straight man. Appleton mounts a pretty fair attempt to match his screen wife line for line, and it's not surprising that Steven bonds with him better than he does his grandma. We can appreciate Leachman's talent but Gladys would be a scary prospect for a kid, apparently animated by a combination of profane bluster and morbid fear. Friendly, fearless old Hiney is much more appealing, though simply riding around with him highlights more dangers. And this is the real point. Dangers are everywhere in the middle of nowhere, but they're new to Steven. A year earlier he probably wouldn't have noticed them, instead being lost in play with his beloved companions, Godzilla and Ultraman. Now he's growing up and the world is a scary place.
Here is where Harrison Smith's writing comes into its own. Apparently working from true events, presumably autobiographical, he conjures up a world of subtle danger as seen through the eyes of a child who's starting to see life in a different light. Partly it's his experiences with his parents, domestic abuse ever pushing kids towards early adulthood. Partly it's the fearmongering Gladys constantly conjures up. Much of it ties to a token bogeyman, Charlie Manson, who's up for parole and so all over the news. Steven doesn't really understand why Manson is important but he asks questions to find out. Unfortunately the answers come in unfortunate phrasing that makes sense but only builds his unease, as he conflates Manson with events around him that seem to mimic his crimes: a corpse in the cornfield, hippies squatting in a disused amusement park, hoodlums terrorising a household, even Aunt Tootie introducing her new man whose name is Charlie.

What may have confused the movie's detractors is how directors Tom Mattera & David Mazzoni chose to depict this growing unease. Often it's told with cinematic language traditionally used in horror movies, but not in the usual way. When Steven finds the corpse, it's built like a standard shock moment but it's drawn out so much that we have no doubt where it's going to go. When Steven runs back through the cornfield, shot from the side as you might expect, he doesn't even scream. Anyone expecting the usual shock/release cycle is going to be sorely disappointed with these scenes, but they'll be missing the point. This isn't shock horror, it's slow, inexorable dread. The story isn't about individual moments, it's about a whole collection of moments that bundle together into one flawed understanding of the world in a child's mind. It's about Steven learning what 'scary' really means, without anyone else really understanding what he's going through.

I enjoyed The Fields considerably, but I found it as complex and flawed as its characters. It looks really good. There are many very long shots, often phrased as still photographs that contain just a little motion. The camera rarely moves quickly but often finds effective angles. Our first shot of the cornfield shows it as so vast that it extends beyond the horizon. The Pennsylvania locations are superb, indoors and out, the cornfield here being as effective as any I've seen in film. The old Bushkill Park amusement park is well used too, down to the wonky moving staircase on the way up to the freakshow. The props feel authentic and receive a good deal of attention. When the story aims for freakiness it nails it, especially at Aunt Gracie's house which is surreal and quietly traumatising rather than outright scary. I appreciated the way that ostensibly traditional scenes, such as the finalé, didn't pander to the horror genre's usual conventions.

Yet I wanted more and less at the same time, placing me between those two camps of reviewers. I appreciated the slow burn but occasionally it got too slow and tighter editing could easily have trimmed a few scenes to the story's benefit. Steven's fear built through what he saw and heard, not what he didn't see or hear, at least until the end when that fear has taken on a life of its own and no longer needs direct stimulus. Empty space earlier on doesn't help. Some scenes build for so long that they become repetitive, their meaning imparted long before the escalating droning of the score is done. There's too much of the same in the finalé, for instance, which runs on too long, promising more than it delivers. While the freakiness is well handled, much of it seems out of place in a story aiming at subtlety. It was these scenes where Steven's inconsistent reactions were most trying as it all seemed like too much.

Perhaps the most overt example of the film's simultaneous success and failure is in how it uses characters. The character definition here is as laudable as it is unusual, because each and every main character is endowed with depth far beyond what you'd expect in a horror movie and often far beyond what you'd get in a character drama. Yet many of those characters aren't given the opportunity to grow and so that depth becomes wasted. There's a disturbing pattern too: female characters start strong but end so weak that they're worthless, while male characters start weak and find strength when they need to. Are all these relationships seesaws? Hiney lets Gladys run the show until something actually happens, at which point she becomes a gibbering wreck while he tries to save the day? Are Bonnie and Barry merely an earlier version of the same thing? Both have backgrounds we want to explore but we're given very little opportunity.

Perhaps it all comes down to the aim. Certainly those wanting a straightforward horror story are going to be disappointed. However much the marketing and the trailer may suggest traditional horror, this is not about shock moments, Charlie Manson or monsters in the corn in the slightest. What that audience will find is slow, subtle drama and character development, which they don't want. Yet the audience that wants exactly that isn't going to necessarily be happy either. There's too much that's phrased like a horror movie and too little actual development to the characters. It works best as a painting, where we're given a location, a tone and a wealth of hints at why we should be paying attention. Yet what we get out of it is going to depend on what we put into it. There are no answers here, no fully drawn characters, no real plot. There's just perspective and this is told from the perspective of a young child who doesn't understand what he's seeing.

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