'Oculus' spends way too much time explaining itself
Oculus Relativity Media
Director: Mike Flanagan
Screenplay: Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard, based on their short film Oculus: Chapter 3 - The Man with the Plan Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan and James Lafferty
Rated R / 1 hour, 45 minutes
April 11, 2014
(out of four)
Oculus is a horror movie for people who like poking plot holes in horror movies. It doesn't reveal itself so much as it explains itself, over and over, to make sure everything that might raise your eyebrow has been preemptively justified.
This works up to a point, in that it establishes a unique scenario in which we know most of the secrets from the start. What's left is to see how those secrets will resolve themselves. But in setting things up this way, Mike Flanagan also saps the film of so much of what works about horror. This is a genre that comes from a primal, elemental place, and Oculus essentially tries to reason its way through. Let me put this plainly: the movie is about a haunted mirror. Which is fine. But when you're starting with the premise of an inanimate object that murders people, I don't think logic is really the way to go.
That's how Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard approach it, and the result is a potentially enticing idea bogged down by its own commentary. Here is what we know early on: Years ago, brother and sister Kaylie and Tim Russell witnessed their father (Rory Cochrane) gradually lose his mind and murder their mother (Katee Sackhoff), all after coming into possession of an antique mirror. He tried to kill the children as well, only for 10-year-old Tim to gun down his father and get himself institutionalized as a result. Just before getting hauled off, the two kids make a promise to each other to one day find the mirror, prove its malevolence, and destroy it.
More than a decade has passed, and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) has finally been deemed fit for release from the institution. He's convinced himself that the beliefs about the mirror that he clung to as a child are false. He's accepted the presumed reality of both his actions and his father's.
But Kaylie (Karen Gillan), with whom he finally reunites on the day of his release, remains unconvinced. In fact, she's spent the intervening years - from her upbringing in a foster home to her burgeoning career at an auction house and a happy life with fiancee Michael (James Lafferty) - tracking down the mirror, fully intending to follow through on her childhood pledge. And so the time has come. She has the mirror in her possession, and has transported it back to the childhood home. Tim is now convinced she's delusional, but nonetheless joins her at the house to see what the plan is all about. And thus begins the reading of the film's rules, guidelines, articles and clauses.
Kaylie knows the mirror's behavior inside and out, so she's carefully organized the situation. The mirror is in place, back in Dad's old study. She's got cameras set up everywhere - some pointed at the mirror itself, others pointed at the other cameras. Every eye is spying on another. The thing about the mirror, the movie explains, is that it makes you see what it wants you to see, makes you do what it wants you to do. The more eyes/lenses, the better the chance they can prove its evil intent - and kinda-sorta clear their father's name in the process.
Why not just destroy the mirror? Well, the movie explains this as well. Its effects are so powerful that it always manages to convince you not to attack it. And even if you think you're, say, smashing it with a golf club, you're not. The mirror just wants you think you are. The mirror can also make you lose track of time and place - so Kaylie has set up timers to keep track of when she and Tim need to eat, hydrate, etc. She's tasked her fiancee with calling her every hour, on the hour. She's set up a supposed fail-safe in the form of a massive anchor hanging from the ceiling, just waiting to swing down and smash the thing when the corresponding timer goes off.
Essentially, the mirror can make you think or do almost anything without your knowledge or consent, but Kaylie feels the need to try to control it anyway. And when its powers begin to go into effect - to the point that even Tim starts to believe again - we get more rules and caveats. The mirror has, for example, a "radius of influence." Go outside that area and you're (presumably) safe. But how do you know you're really outside and it's not just the mirror falsely convincing you? Well ... well, you see how exhausting the tedium can be.
The movie is manufactured to create questions and simultaneously answer them, to create plot holes and simultaneously fill them. It's basically one giant deflection against criticism. Everything can be explained by saying, "Well that's just what the mirror wants them to think / say / do!" That's not necessarily a bad experiment - and there are some moments that nicely exploit the dichotomy between what these characters think they're doing and what they're actually doing. Certain key shots explicitly juxtapose the way Tim and Kaylie are seeing a moment play out vs. what the computer monitors are recording. Then again, there are also times when the recordings seem to be lying, too. But there I go poking plot holes like I'm not supposed to.
A lot of films play with the ambiguity between fantasy and reality, but at a certain point in Oculus, it's not ambiguity - it's just mechanically rigging the game. Horror preys on fear, using the subconscious, the visceral and/or the supernatural as a trigger. Logic really has nothing to do with it. Yet Flanagan insists on constantly making us aware of all the rationale governing what we're experiencing, instead of just letting us experience it. In the process, he sacrifices the surreal ambiguity that's ostensibly the point of the movie in the first place.