Monday 8 February 2016

Heir (2015)

Director: Richard Powell
Stars: Bill Oberst Jr, Robert Nolan and Matteo D’Avino
If anyone foolishly thought that, after Worm and Familiar, a pair of deeply unsettling short films, Richard Powell, their writer and director, would settle down and make something pleasant for the kiddies, they’re in for something of a shock with this one. Sure, its tagline does suggest that, reading simply, ‘A touching tale of father and son’, but it’s playing more literally with those words, even if it obscures everything in a web of deceit and another abstraction into body horror. The film’s credits at IMDb appear in alphabetical order and the very first one is for the dream part of ‘Rotting Pedophile’, so there should be no surprise to discover that this is another deeply unsettling short film, looking at the curse of paedophilia as a disease. Back yet again is Robert Nolan, who shouldn’t be getting better and better with each film I see him in, as he was too damn good to begin with, but he’s accompanied by Bill Oberst Jr, an amazing actor too often wasted in crappy movies. He’s painfully believable here, disquieting and loathsome but utterly real.

Nolan plays Gordon, who is magnificently introduced in the 75 seconds before the title card. We see that he’s a husband and father, but that things are not good in this family. Initially we think divorce, because he takes pictures of his wife and son and crops her out of them. He composes an e-mail entitled ‘My Son’ to ask for a ‘play date’. But then he starts to ask directions and we start to wonder. The ominous, pulsing, score doesn’t say divorce; it says nagging urge. Nolan looks guilty, as if he’s not only fighting something within him but he’s scared of losing that fight. And he has some sort of sore on his hand, an oozing sore full of viscous white liquid that emerges as he fingers it. Clearly this itch that he’s scratching is not just a physical one, it’s a metaphorical one and it doesn’t take much to collate these pieces together to see an awful big picture. Gordon likes little boys and he has one of his own. Perhaps he hasn’t done anything at this point, but he wants to and whatever he’s used to stop himself thus far isn’t working any more.

So off he drives with his son, Paul, who’s probably in his early teens, to meet an old college friend, Denis, at a diner, and, if we hadn’t worked out what was going on already, we can’t fail to figure it out here. The double entendres about food are unyielding and the only way Paul can miss the nauseating eagerness of his dad’s ‘college friend’ is through really not caring in the slightest about any of this and losing himself in his game while the adults chat. ‘You’re not hungry?’ Denis asks Gordon and he’s really not referring to food. ‘Ain’t nothing like the real thing,’ he digs. ‘Ain’t that right, dad?’ In this scene, Nolan, who’s usually the dominant presence, clearly plays second fiddle to Oberst; Denis is so comfortable with who and what he is that he can generate nightmares just by eating a sandwich. Gordon is stuck in the uncertain ground between his companions. Paul is completely innocent, while Denis is that word’s every antonym: not just guilty but corrupt, immoral, experienced, cunning, impure and stained. Gordon isn’t that. Yet.
And they go back to Denis’s place and I’ll stop right there, after three and a half minutes of the fourteen that Heir runs. Let’s just suggest that what your twisted imagination might have conjured up for the rest is likely to be partly true and partly wide of the mark. I’ll avoid talking about where Gordon’s itch goes in reality and mention that it goes a heck of a long way in metaphor, a bubbling and boiling creature living inside of him, phallic of course and even more reminiscent of Cronenberg body horror than what we saw in Familiar because it’s as much science fiction as it is horror. I’ll also say that while it’s easy to see what this story is about, what’s truly going on in Gordon’s head is a complex tangle indeed. This is far from a black and white reading of an issue that many see in black and white terms and that’s going to generate controversy in itself, but where Gordon goes within this story is worthy of a great deal of discussion too. He’s a villain, make no mistake, but he’s also a hero in his way and that’s an odd thought to ponder.
The title is another conundrum, as it usually is with Powell’s films. Worm was a relatively straightforward title, albeit through metaphor, but Familiar carries a number of meanings and so does Heir. Does it refer primarily to the cycle of child abuse where the abused sadly become the abusers? If so, is the suggestion that Paul will become the heir to Gordon? If so, he becomes a more important character in this film than we might initially assume, given that he’s very much the MacGuffin of the piece. Or is Gordon the heir, a whole other story having unfolded before this one even begins? That idea gives depth to what Nolan has to channel in this role. Certainly mere progression suggests that Gordon might become Denis’s heir, but that’s where this story lies and you’ll need to watch yourself to see how that plays out. I love how Powell can endow so much depth into his short films, especially when they’re edited as tightly as this one. This makes the longer Familiar seem like a sprawling epic.

What’s really different here is that Nolan isn’t the dominant force that he has been previously. It was hard to acknowledge that anyone else existed in Worm and he was all over Familiar like a rash, but here he’s the lead character without being the dominant one. It’s fantastic to see Nolan and Oberst share a screen, especially when both have such gifts of characters to portray. Oberst gets the dominant one and he does it so well that I wanted to wash my hands when the end credits rolled. Nolan gets the one with depth but at the cost of emphasis. He’s tasked with playing a character driven in a number of different directions at once and that’s really difficult to do. I think he nails it at the beginning and at the end, but perhaps allows Oberst too much dominance at points in between. The diner scene is a great example of one that he gifts to his co-star when he could have fought a little harder for it; he had to stay subservient but not quite so far as he does. It’s still another great performance though and I can’t wait for a Powell/Nolan feature.

1 comment:

Bill Oberst Jr. said...

Thank you for the kind mention in this review. I felt honored to work with Robert Nolan, and with the guys at Fatal Pictures. HEIR is horror for the thinking man, and that is rare. I thought it was well done. Appreciate your taking the time to watch and review it.


Bill Oberst Jr.