Leigh Janiak's 'Honeymoon' paints a moody, unnerving portrait of a new marriage's surreal undoing
Honeymoon Magnet Releasing
Director: Leigh Janiak
Screenplay: Leigh Janiak and Phil Graziadei
Starring: Rose Leslie, Harry Treadaway, Ben Huber and Hanna Brown
Rated R / 1 hour, 27 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
I'm sure there have been more than a few honeymoons that have begun as playful and passionate (as Leigh Janiak's Honeymoon does), and then quickly devolved into something far more acrimonious (as Leigh Janiak's Honeymoon does). So almost by default, this film contains plenty of metaphorical value, particularly surrounding various fears of the unknown. The fear of commitment, marriage, procreation*. The fear of discovering that you don't really know that person you think you knew. The (married) male fear of female autonomy, sexual or otherwise.
Consider Janiak's structure. As it opens, the central newlyweds - who share the screen almost exclusively for the film's entirety - are in that new romance mode. When they arrive at the young wife's family cabin for their honeymoon, they can't keep their hands off each other. Until suddenly, after a mysterious incident on their second night, she's different. Her body is no longer available to him. She begins acting unusual. Suddenly he can't understand her; suddenly he may not even know her.
* On that note, there's even one scene that explicitly reminded me of David Lynch's Eraserhead.
Janiak takes a fascinating and consistently unnerving approach to what initially seems like a pretty cut-and-dried setup. Young couple on their honeymoon, alone in the boonies, in the woods. They even meet a creepy neighbor and everything.
But it doesn't develop like most similarly staged horror films. Rather, there's a sudden and jarring shift that's unsettling initially because it seems so benign. First, there's the incident: Bea (Rose Leslie) - enthusiastic, down-to-earth, playful - disappears into the woods one night before being discovered by her panicked husband, Paul (Harry Treadaway). She returns missing some of her clothes, but they write it off as little more than a sleepwalking incident.
The next morning, they're presumably back to normal, but Bea seems ... off. She makes fried toast but forgets the eggs. She makes coffee but forgets the beans. She stumbles over words - common words, everyday words. She stifles her panic with laughter, and allays any concerns Paul might have about her state of mind. She assures him that nothing happened in the woods the previous night.
She bristles when he tries to touch her. She says she's just not feeling well. Nothing is wrong. Her behavior is not overtly crazy, just slightly bizarre. At least at first, it's nothing that couldn't be easily and reasonably explained as an everyday ailment or simply a bad day. Leslie - gamely hiding the awesome Scottish accent we all fell for in Game of Thrones - does a terrific job capturing the burgeoning sense of confusion Bea feels as it becomes clear that something - something - is happening to both her mind and body.
What's so smart about the way Janiak and co-writer Phil Graziadei develop this gradually deteriorating relationship is just that - how reasonable and banal these subtle changes in Bea are. Sure, we know something must be going on, but Paul - in his haste to protect his new wife from whatever it is that he can't understand - overreacts nonetheless. Crucially, his attention seems to be focused on her childhood boyfriend - the creepy guy they ran into at the local diner at the beginning of the movie - and whether or not he was there with her in the woods that night, and what he might have done to her. That there is no evidence at all the guy was in the vicinity at the time is of no consequence to Paul - to him, Will (Ben Huber) is a threat.
The way Janiak is able to slowly build things, and keep the anxiety growing - using primarily small gestures, small narrative developments, tiny changes in mood or behavior - is impressive. Within a matter of hours, I had the good fortune of seeing two small-scale horror movies that succeeded for largely the same reason: the refusal to over-explain things. Honeymoon, a combination of psychological thriller and body horror, is built on fear and confusion. While it eventually becomes clear, in a broad sense, what is happening to Bea, the film never over-exposes it. Janiak realizes his story is much more interesting if we don't know too much.
In avoiding the kind of exposition that might derail the mood, Janiak is able to paint a primal and surreal portrait of terror and loss that evokes the pain of loving someone with whom you can no longer communicate.