Saturday 19 October 2013

A Stray (2013)

Director: Hayden Blades
Stars: Joe Flowers, Myrsadyse Pangburn and Mina Mirkhah
This film was an official selection at the Filmstock Arizona 2013 round of the revolving Filmstock film festival. Here's an index to my reviews of all selections.
I've reviewed films by Synthetic Human Pictures before, but I was surprised to find that they've made no less than a dozen of them, the latest being A Stray, which premiered a week ago today at the Herberger Theater Stage West in downtown Phoenix. It runs 37 minutes, an awkward length for a lot of film festivals: far too short to be a feature but still too long to fit comfortably into a selection of shorts. As they take up two or three slots in such sets, lesser such middle length films can be frustrating but the best of them can be exquisite, as they provide smaller subjects with welcome depth. This one is closer to the latter than the former, as it effectively tells two stories simultaneously: a regular one that plays out chronologically, as well as another that unfolds backwards to gradually flesh out the background needed for us to understand the regular one properly. However, it avoids really giving us a key, meaning that my lass and I had a long discussion about it all the way home. A second viewing is required to fully grok what it's doing. At least.

The regular story phrases itself as a thriller, as census taker Gabriel Althaus finds himself surrounded by threats of every description: house prices are dropping and neighbours are wary of 'the wrong kind moving in'; finances are obviously a concern as he's living to a strict budget; there are reports of coyotes attacking people in the area and one may have bitten his six year old daughter, Katie, especially as there's a large and mysterious dog hanging around their rural home, apparently watching them. Even inanimate objects appear to have it in for him: his car breaks down and he's always getting caught on the rickety fence out back. But, as a well placed zoom into the missing piece in the family's framed jigsaw puzzle of Hokusai's Great Wave demonstrates, we don't have the whole picture yet. Presumably that ties to Evelyn, who has a particularly strong presence in this film for someone who isn't in the regular story. We see her all the time and it's an open question whether she's only real in the back story.

Evelyn is also the spark for us to think about normality. Gabriel clearly wants to be a Norman Rockwell painting, even as a single father. Daddy and Katie live in a house in the suburbs, he has a white collar job and they have a cute little dog called Cowboy. Yet Evelyn is far from normal: Mina Mirkhah's exotic looks are emphasised here with sharp angles and strong eyeliner. The constant confrontations between her and Gabriel are nothing like the calm, multi-racial family of three on the cover of Modern Living that sits on his lap at the hospital. She's clearly a challenge to his perceptions of normality. The question that A Stray has us ponder on is how far outside those perceptions she really is, but it stubbornly refuses to let us know for sure. There are many ways to read this film, just as there are many ways to read its title. If everything we see here unfolds in Gabriel's mind, already tormented by Evelyn leaving and now by everything else, the stray is the literal one outside, watching him and possibly doing more.
I don't buy that this is anywhere near that simple. Sure, we only see Evelyn through Gabriel's memory of her, but there are too many other little details that point emphatically to this being a mature and complex work of horror. We don't notice them, or at least don't understand them, on our first viewing, because we don't have that back story to flavour our understanding, but they can't be missed on a second run through. Which character delivers the first words is surely important, as is the first line of dialogue Katie delivers. The neighbour's dog barking at night is far more than just an annoyance. The scars on Gabriel's back have meaning, as does the pristine crane shot that highlights the full moon. There's clearly a supernatural story here, as much as writer/director Hayden Blades refuses to rule out the possibility that everything is just in Gabriel's head. If so, there are at least two other strays. Even the song that unfolds over the end credits, a wild version of Hound Dog by the Sugar Thieves, becomes a double meaning.

I don't believe a third viewing will help to firm up my reading of A Stray because I don't think Blades wanted to make it that simple. This can be enjoyed simply, as an exploration of a man driven to desperation by his wife leaving, or it can be explored as a supernatural horror story with a number of layers. Even there, it can be read in different ways: maybe it's Gabriel's struggle with who he is, maybe it's all a battle between him and Evelyn. Fortunately the cast are up to the task, whichever way we read it. Joe Flowers, who I last saw in an utterly different role in a four minute romantic comedy called Vinyl, is excellent here, grounding the film with a performance deep enough for each reading to safely hang upon. Mina Mirkhah, so delightfully down to earth in The Big Something, haunts the film as much as she haunts Gabriel; she's the jigsaw piece that we need to fit into the puzzle but she refuses to play ball. Child actor Myrsadyse Pangburn could have been just a tie between them, but she's good enough to be a little more and open up still more possibilities.

Even with solid support from Ronald Bush and Laura Durant and strong cinematography by David Matteson, this surely belongs to Hayden Blades. He wrote and directed A Stray, along with contributing in a number of other ways behind the scenes. I was particularly impressed by his editing, because it very neatly blurs the two stories, the past and the present, meaning that we can't help but wonder about how much importance Evelyn really has to Gabriel and what's happening to him. Blades has credits all over the Synthetic Human oeuvre, but he's only recently started directing for them, this being his second effort for them in that vein after 2008's Roman a Bottle, though he also co-directed The Heaviness of Here with David Matteson a year before this production company came into being. With only Not Quite Dead and Pattern: Response reviewed here and Her Special Day long overdue, clearly it's time for me to take a journey back through the rest of their films to discover how they progressed in six years to something as mature as this.

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