Saturday 1 June 2013

Therapist (2012)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Michael Coleman, Jessica Bishop and Amy Serafin

After last month's Travis Mills review, a cute, bouncy and infectious 48 hour film challenge piece called Itty Bitty Bang Bang, here's one that reflects the darker, more experimental side of Running Wild Films. Therapist has garnered quite a bit of attention for its edgy final scene and clearly there are some deep questions being raised, but I'm not sure if they're really asked or answered. Mills is clearly drawn to film noir ambiguity, where he sets the stage for a story and then lets us figure out exactly what he meant by it. The most enjoyable Mills movies for me are the ones where we can't help but continue the story on in our minds after the credits roll, such as The Ruffians, Night Train to Phoenix or the online version of The Memory Ride. Sometimes though, as with The French Spy or this film, he goes a little further and abstracts the story so far that we don't have enough building blocks to go on and we have trouble phrasing our questions, let alone finding answers.
Therapist opens roughly, with a highly voyeuristic scene of a young couple in a small space more like a corridor than a room. They kiss, but don't progress any further, even though he's apparently quit smoking to appease her. She tells him that this will be the last time that she sleeps with him, as her female therapist of six years has suggested. He's stunned, not just because he's no longer going to get any but because he didn't even know she was in therapy. So he leaves, rather than allow her to have that control over him. This scene is interesting, especially when reading up on the odd way Mills set it up. The two actors, Michael Coleman and Jessica Bishop, were given brief ideas of the scene and told to answer their own questions about it. Mills gave them films to watch as prep work. He then treated the shoot as therapy, doing a take, discussing how it went, then repeating until they got what he wanted. 'I want it to look ugly,' he said and it does.

When the title arrives five and a half minutes in, we realise the film doesn't end with its opening scene. Now we're outside, in what appears to be a different picture entirely. Gone is the hiss, the background noise and the handheld camera that's so up close and personal that we see nothing but two heads, a wall and the invisible cloud hanging over them. Smoothness replaces roughness in a beautifully shot scene that has our frustrated male lead track down the therapist who stopped his fun. The sound problems are gone, replaced by Schubert on the soundtrack. Instead of grainy redness, we get impressive camerawork, neat editing and lots of character. He sticks to his choice to stop smoking, though it's clearly tough work, but the draw of following this therapist wins out. She drives to FilmBar, which means I like her, but this was clearly shot some time ago as the sign isn't up. Inside, the camera emphasises him as small and weak but her as strong and dominant.
With a deliberately rough first act and a deliberately smooth second act, I was certainly engaged to discover where Mills was taking his characters and viewers in the final act. Unfortunately I still haven't figured it out and I'm not sure I ever will. Just like The French Spy, this is more of a puzzle for us to attempt to fathom than a traditional plot based picture, so the concept of spoilers doesn't really apply. Certainly the thumbnail image which greets anyone visiting the film's Vimeo page to watch is far more of a spoiler than anything I could provide here, given that it shows the therapist and the large strap on dildo she's wearing looking down at a motel room bed on which our worried looking young man sits. I kept waiting for a twist, but no twist came and there's very little detail to ground us. All I can be sure of is that the linear story that unfolds is clearly not sufficient to tell us what's actually going on. When I tried to figure this out, I realised that I had nothing to go on.

I'm not even sure which characters are therapists and which patients. The two halves of the short share only one character: our male lead. Could he really be sleeping with both a therapist and her patient? Are he and his girlfriend both seeing the same therapist? Or is he really the therapist all along, and we're merely seeing him interact with two of his patients? I really have no clue. I don't really buy the latter as a viable reading but it still seems more likely than the story as presented. Maybe not all this is real. Maybe it's real up to the moment he watches the therapist in the mirror of his car and the rest all unfolds in his mind. Maybe that moment is when she walks up to him in FilmBar. Who knows? It's fair to explore the subconscious in a movie about therapy, but what does that last scene tell us? Perhaps it's a metaphor; when his girlfriend stops having sex with him, he feels that her therapist is violating him. Maybe he's the Dude possessed by Walter. I have no idea.

Therapist is available to view for free on Vimeo and YouTube.

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