The Believer (2021)


When love becomes toxic.

(2021) Horror (Freestyle) Aidan Bristow, Sophie Kargman, Billy Zane, Susan Wilder, Lindsey Ginter, Robbie Goldstein. Directed by Shan Serafin

 

Sometimes, the person you married isn’t the same as the person sitting next to you at the dinner table. You thought you knew them better than you know yourself, but suddenly you’re not so sure. People change, after all…and not always for the better.

Lucas (Bristow) and Violet (Kargman) are in that kind of a marriage. The two of them are at loggerheads over something Violet did that Lucas is having a hard time dealing with. Then again, he’s an unemployed physicist who following a broken foot has seen his health decline inexplicably. So, too, is his mental health, to the point he is seeing a psychiatrist, the unorthodox Dr. Benedict (Zane) to try and piece together what happened.

What happened, we find out, was an abortion that Violet performed without Lucas’ knowledge or approval. Since then, she has begun to obsess over demons and possession, and the pragmatic scientist she married is having a hard time matching the calm and rational woman he married with the robotic but deranged woman that won’t allow him to touch her anymore.

Then again, Lucas doesn’t appear to be much of a prize either, but we’ll get to that. Right now, Violet’s parents Charlotte (Wilder) and Gus (Ginter) have dropped over for a surprise visit at just the absolute worst time. There’s a problem with that, though – Violet insists that her parents are both dead and these people are not who they say they are. What is going on? Is Violet right? Or has she lost her mind? Or is something far more insidious, far more sinister going on?

Shan Serafin has crafted a psychological horror film that does a good job of keeping the viewer off-balance and heightening a sense of unreality. Lucas is definitely an unreliable narrator, particularly the more you witness his sessions with Dr. Benedict which may or may not be real. Serafin does some moderate borrowing from other films, including Rosemary’s Baby and Misery, both of which, ironically, started out as books.

But borrowing from other sources isn’t the movie’s greatest sin. Kargman is a bit too much the icy, emotionless blonde (although she’s a brunette) to be memorable here, while Bristow flails away but his character has too many unlikable moments to build a viewer connection. Zane is virtually unrecognizable as the therapist, so it falls to Violet’s parents/not-parents to be the characters here you’ll most remember, with their false bonhomie, fake smiles and sinister undertones.

The movie relies too much on jump scares, particularly in the second half, and when things really start to get unwound in terms of Lucas’ sanity, the movie starts to fall apart some. The movie’s final scenes aren’t harrowing enough to really keep your interest. There are some good things here, but overall the movie is unsatisfying and could have used a bit of tweaking.

REASONS TO SEE: Sets up a nice sense of unreality.
REASONS TO AVOID: When things get trippy the film loses cohesion.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, some sexuality and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Serafin in addition to directing and writing screenplays has also written horror novels.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gaslight
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Boss Level

Life Itself (2018)


Ah, to be young, in love and expecting a child!

(2018) Romance (AmazonOlivia Wilde, Oscar Isaac, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart, Olivia Cooke, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa, Alex Monner, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabel Durant, Lorenza Izzo, Jake Robinson, Adrián Marrero, Kya Cruse, Charlie Thurston, Gabby Bryan, Jordana Rose, Caitlin Carmichael, Bryant Carroll, Carmela Lloret. Directed by Dan Fogelman

 

Life Itself (not to be confused with the 2014 Roger Ebert bio-documentary) has some mighty tall aspirations. It means to show us through all the pain and suffering through life, we can find solace in that love finds us because it is destined to. I’m sure there are plenty of lonely people who would take exception to that theory.

Will (Isaac) and Abby (Wilde) are a young couple who met in college, fell in love, got married and are expecting a child. Or, at least, they were; we see most of that through flashbacks and we meet Will during a therapy session with a sympathetic psychiatrist (Bening) who is trying to guide Will through the ruins of his life after Abby leaves it. We meet their daughter Dylan (Cooke), a petulant young girl who fronts a punk band but is hiding great pain and not hiding it very well. We also meet Rodrigo (Monner), a young boy traumatized at a young age and brought up by a mother (Costa) who is afflicted with cancer and two fathers – his biological dad (Peris-Mencheta) and the wealthy landowner (Banderas) for whom his father works and who has been part of his life since the beginning. We also meet Elena (Izzo), the narrator who has connections with nearly all of these people in some way.

This is a movie that is riddled with sorrow; plenty of the folks I just introduced you to meet tragic ends, but there is also a lot of joy in the relationships with spouses, parents and caring friends. It feels like Fogelman has tried to cram way too much into the movie which helps to give it the feel that it’s going on too long. Some astute viewers will note that Fogelman has become well-known for the TV show This Is Us which this resembles in tone and construction which is probably why my wife likes this movie so much.

Most critics don’t, however, and I count myself among them. Like life itself, the movie has problems and triumphs in equal measure. There are some nice performances – Costa, Isaac, Wilde and Patinkin stand out, and Jackson in what amounts to a cameo at the very beginning of the movie might have caused problems by making viewers think this was going to be a different kind of movie than it actually was. Frankly, I thought that Fogelman should have stuck with the Sam Jackson movie; it’s a much better one than the one he actually made.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some form of catharsis throughout the movie for you to hold onto. There certainly is, but the tone shifts are so abrupt and violent that we are left feeling curiously off-balance, which is kind of what we watch movies to get away from. Life Itself is too much like life itself in many ways and I don’t think most of us love life itself enough to want to watch a movie about it.

REASONS TO SEE: Jackson is incandescent in his brief appearance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Excessively maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is more than a bit of profanity, some sexual references, some violent images and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fogelman listened extensively to Bob Dylan’s 1997 Time Out of Mind album in order to set the mood of the film which blends love and melancholy. In fact, the track “Love Sick” plays over the opening credits.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 14% positive reviews: Metacritic: 21/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Is Us
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The House With the Clock In the Walls