Saturday, April 18, 2015
It Doesn't Think
About, I'd say, a quarter of the way into It Follows, the new movie from writer-director David Robert Mitchell which has so far positioned itself to comfortably be one of the maybe two serious horror films, by which I mean it's not at least 75% intended as a joke and has earned a flood of acclaim, that we are permitted to have each year, as I say, about a quarter of the way into this thing our young heroine Jay (Maika Monroe) has just had sex with her new boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary). Hugh seems like a good guy, he doesn't force her into anything, and though lately he's been acting a little bit funny, the sex was Jay's idea, and so therefore etc. But then afterwards, in the car where the deed was accomplished, Hugh suddenly leaps on her and knocks her out with chloroform. When she awakes, she's tied to a chair in what appears to be an abandoned parking garage. Hugh is there, and he tells her that, listen, I just had sex with you so that I could pass on to you this condition under which I have been burdened wherein the sufferer is followed by a supernatural creature until either A) it catches and kills the pursued, or B) the pursued has sex with someone else, thereby passing, sexually transmitted disease-style, the otherworldly danger to another. Although it should also be noted, Hugh goes on to say, that those who achieve this dissemination aren't entirely off the hook because should the disseminated-to be killed by this creature before they're able to keep the chain going, the thing will then go back to pursuing he who had recently shed himself of this misfortune, i.e., in this case, Hugh. Furthermore, Hugh tells Jay, this deadly being can and will appear as just about any person it chooses, be it a stranger or even one of Jay's loved ones -- whatever it takes, Hugh insists its motive is, that will let it get close to you, that is, Jay. Finally, it moves very slowly, so you can buy yourself some time by driving places, and, again, having sex with someone will shift the responsibility elsewhere, and if everyone keeps giving the next person along this same head's up, everything should be fine. With that done, and with the supernatural creature in the form of a nude woman appearing to helpfully prove Hugh's not making all this up, he drives Jay home where her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and friends Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and Paul (Keir Gilchrist) are on the porch waiting for her. David Robert Mitchell (the director, if you'll recall) films the drop-off by showing Hugh's car pull up to the curb as it would be seen by Kelly and the others. The car stops and Hugh gets out. We don't see Jay. He goes to the rear driver's side door and opens it. He's helping, or pulling, someone out, and he says "Don't let it touch you." Then he gets in the car and drives away, revealing, as the car moves off, Jay, clad only in her underwear, laying, folded up and somehow damaged in the street.
Say what you will about that premise, and I'll admit that as far as good ideas go it does seem a bit hinky to me, it doesn't strike me as unworkable. Before continuing I should also acknowledge that in the world of criticism it's considered either not kosher or not cricket to approach negative criticism with the goal of explaining how things should have been done. At least I think you're not supposed to do that, but maybe I'm mixing it up with something else you're not supposed to do. But anyway, so listen: what about if David Robert Mitchell had cut all of Hugh's explanation, had cut even the sex scene, such as it currently exists, and simply left in some indication that either Jay or Hugh was going put the moves on the other, and then we cut to the car pulling up, the strange helping of Jay from the car, Hugh's now enigmatic "Don't let it touch you" (which in the film is not enigmatic at all), the car pulling away, and Jay's crumpled body. Had that been done, the audience would now share the point of view of the characters the camera, in this scene, wants us to share, that is Kelly, Yara, and Paul, none of whom heard any of Hugh's "Look, this thing follows sex-havers" speech. Allowing for the fact that yes, a malevolent supernatural creature doing anything for any reason is not comforting, as all of this pertains to films and storytelling, isn't it more effective to show the weird things happening before you explain why they're happening (if you even think it's advisable to explain them at all) than to say, in essence "A bunch of weird things are about to happen and here's what they are" before showing them? My argument is that yes, that first thing is more effective.
But It Follows is not remotely concerned with strangeness or atmosphere or even in sticking to the tiresome rules of the concept that it spent so much time tiresomely laying out. Once that concept has been locked down, the film is structured about how you'd expect: her friends rally around her to try and figure out a way to beat this thing while the possibility of taking Hugh's advice and passing this terrible fate along looms in Jay's mind, her two candidates being Paul, who's in love with her, and Greg (Daniel Zovatto), a classmate who's pretty quick off the stick when faced with supernatural terrors. So now the following should begin, although this thing doesn't so much follow as it does "walk into rooms" or "walk towards your staring face." In any case, remember that Hugh said this thing would take the form of anything that would help it get close to Jay, and so among the first forms it takes is that of a topless woman with smashed out front teeth who is in the middle of pissing herself. Oh, what a crafty plan, because that's Jay's favorite. It makes me uneasy how well this creature understands Jay. If this was a one-off mistake by the creature, like it thought "Oops I thought she liked bloody pissing ladies," that would be one thing, but with possibly one exception there is no reason to believe that Jay would ever let her guard down for any of the forms it takes, and indeed she never does. On top of this, that one exception is completely bungled because not only is the audience only told later why Jay might have been vulnerable to this form, she is not vulnerable to this form. The only reaction an audience member could be expected to have when confronted with information given in this order and accompanied by so little consequence is to think "Oh. Well, it didn't work anyway, so no big whoop."
For those who think it's necessary that a horror film have a subject, the subject of It Follows is obviously sex (it's certainly not following, I can tell you that much). And I don't agree with those detractors who accuse It Follows of Puritanism because sex can lead to all sorts of negative consequences, some of them terrifyingly negative; it's no use warning against them on one hand and pretending they don't exist on the other. So as a metaphor for these things, and more specifically the fear in people they engender, the idea behind the film is fine, but it's little more than that. Beyond it, the film doesn't seem to have a clear thought in its head, about anything. It gestures in a lot of different directions as if David Robert Mitchell understands that he can't go a whole movie without acknowledging certain things, like parents (the characters, by the way, seem to mostly be college students, or anyway of college age, who live at home). Often in the film, Jay can be heard telling her sister "Don't tell Mom." Though she's present as a character, or rather as an ambulatory sentience shaped like actress Debbie Williams, "telling Mom" in the context of this film would probably have the same effect as telling Santa would. Similarly, "going to college" in this case means precisely the same thing as "not going to college," and going to the hospital because you've been shot in the leg by your friend brings down as much heat from the police as having not been shot by anyone at all. Nothing in the film leads to any consequences that Mitchell might have to think through and factor in except sex, so I don't know, maybe the anti-Puritanicals have a point here, but in any event that premise, the sex monster business, is the one thing that Mitchell seems to have expended any effort on at all, but if he'd put enough thought into it, or the right kind of effort, he'd have ended up telling us far less about it.
The ultimate example of the thoughtlessness that simply oozes out of It Follows is the climax, the big showdown scene, which involves a plan developed by one of our heroes which nobody involved, including the audience and David Robert Mitchell, should have any reason to believe will work, but that's okay because what seems to have been the plan, this other plan (not to spoil anything, but this other plan is essentially "What if we shoot it?" which happens to be further complicated by the fact that actually the plan is "What if we shoot it again?"), all of which seems to end one way, but which the characters have apparently decided, despite having been given no evidence whatsoever to support this, ended in a different way. And listen, ambiguity is one thing, but being dumb is also one thing, and from the moment Paul says to Jay "Do you trust me?", It Follows becomes hopelessly dumb; when you consider what came before, that this bit is notably stupid is, well, notable.
There are exactly two moments in It Follows that I thought showed some promise. They're very small moments, but I like small moments. Anyway, the first one is near the beginning. Jay is in her family's above-ground pool in the backyard, and there's a bug on her wrist. Mitchell shows her look at it and then lower her arm into the water, effectively, and intentionally, drowning the insect while using less energy than it would take to open a can of soda. I wondered what this might signify (hint: nothing). The other moment is when Hugh takes Jay to the movies and they're playing a game I won't describe but which involves imagining things about the people in the theater with them. Hugh says to Jay "Are you thinking about her?" Jay asks who and Hugh says "The woman in the yellow dress." Jay doesn't know what he's talking about, she sees no such person. Hugh immediately becomes anxious and asks that they leave the theater. I wondered "Does the supernatural threat in this film appear as a woman in a yellow dress? That's interesting...I wonder what kind of eerie visuals David Robert Mitchell has planned for this." He had zero of them planned, and you might imagine that the truth of his actual idea, that the creature can appear as anything, would at best open up certain possibilities, again, visually speaking, but, again, no. If anything it froze his brain. Nothing goes anywhere or means anything or has an impact or looks or sounds or is interesting. I've seen a lot of horror movies that I liked a good deal less than many people seemed to, but rarely have I been as baffled by the discrepancy between a film's reception and the film I actually saw as I am by my experience with It Follows. And as if all that isn't bad enough, there's a scene late in the film where a character is eating a sandwich, it appears to be tuna salad, a soft, noiseless sandwich, but the chewing sounds looped in would seem to indicate a lot of lettuce, raw onion -- thick, noisy things. What I'm saying is, the foley work does not at all line up with the sandwich I was looking at. I mean for Pete's sake. Who's minding the store here?