Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
June 2017


Bad mutations

On giant spiders, neon lights, video-game logic, and the empty faux-psychological exercise of Rupture

AMBI Pictures
Director: Steven Shainberg
Screenplay: Brian Nelson
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Chiklis, Kerry Bishé, Lesley Manville, Percy Hynes White, Ari Millen and Peter Stormare
Rated R / 1 hour, 42 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)

Admittedly, it's a big-ass spider. Huge. One might even call it Buick-sized. It's certainly a bigger spider than any I've ever seen in person. But as the entire embodiment of a movie character's physiological weaknesses? As a film's primary psychological weapon, its foreshadowing, its pivotal symbolic emblem? No spider is that big. You're gonna have to do a lot better than that, Rupture.

Indeed, the film - Secretary helmer Steven Shainberg's first directorial effort since Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus 11 years ago - begins with the discovery by its main character of a giant spider in her bathroom. Renee (Noomi Rapace) is clearly petrified, but her 12-year-old son Evan (Percy Hynes White) has no problem removing the giant beast himself, cradling it carefully in two hands, and gently letting it outside. (Or, at least, pretending to. He seems to have the inclination to secretly keep it around.) Thus the phobic groundwork is put clearly in place, and we can only await the moment when that specific fear comes back to haunt Renee again.

That it will only come once she's been abducted on the side of the road, transported to an underground lab, experimented upon and checked for a specific genetic breakthrough is certainly an unexpected path to the inevitable, but that scenario only reveals the flimsiness of the film's - and its protagonist's - psychological profile. Renee has been brought to this lab because, her captors believe, she is a candidate for ... well, for something world-changing. Something that has to do with her DNA, and that of various other candidates (including themselves) they've picked up over the years. It's a little Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque, but with a lot more legwork and, for the experimenters, a much lower success rate. Candidates are aplenty, but ultimately worthy ones are rare. I'm trying to tiptoe around the more specific details as carefully as I can.

The film wants to - and kind of needs to - work on a psychological level first and foremost, but it gets too hung up on its cheaply manufactured suspense. It's too dumb for its high-minded ideas - about the human subconscious, about fear and morality, about the power dynamics of physical captivity and control - or otherwise can't figure out how to merge its inquisitive impulses with its pulpy requirements. The closest we get to any expressive or subjective evocation of Renee's experience is cinematographer Karim Hussain's lighting, which transforms this dungeon-like laboratory's concrete slabs and antiseptic metals into a neon-soaked alien nightmare. Hallucinatory purples, hellish pinks, sickly yellows.

So the least you could say is, Shainberg sets the stage rather nicely. It's only when things are moving along narratively that he runs into problems. After a long ride in the back of a truck, Renee is unloaded and wheeled underground, and the tests begin almost immediately. What these mysterious people want from her, or from her body, she hasn't a clue. One of the other patients tells her something - insists it's something important, something she must remember - but she doesn't understand what it means. She is held to the operating table by her ankles and wrists, with a locked chain around her neck. She completes the first set of tests, and then the "doctors" - or whatever they* are - leave, promising to be back when they deem her ready for another round.

* "They" don't register much as characters, despite the name actors playing most of the parts - among them Lesley Manville, Kerry Bishé, Peter Stormare and Michael Chiklis. That may well be an intentional - and not necessarily unsuccessful - shortcut on Shainberg's part, to take roles written mostly as anonymous figures and cast actors who can simply project a presence, and deliver a chilling line or two, unconnected to any personality beyond that. I don't even recall them being given names during the film, although it's possible I just didn't catch them. Even on IMDb, Chiklis' character is listed simply as "Bald Man." Which ... I mean, like I said, it's a Michael Chiklis character. What else would he be. Any other physical incarnation of Chiklis - or Jason Statham, or Patrick Stewart - that does not qualify for the descriptor "Bald Man" is a cinematic blasphemy. But I digress.

They don't speak much - at least not at first, although they certainly get talky over the final third, once Shainberg and screenwriter Brian Nelson realize they need to start explaining their premise to us, having been largely unable to get it across by other means - but when they do, the language is pointedly alarming. "Let it happen ... don't fight it." And yet any possible or intended commentary specific to physical violation - or abduction, captivity, really anything related to violence or power - is ignored or glossed over. Instead, Rupture rushes into escape/chase mode after not too long - which is such an obvious direction for it to go that it can't help but feel like anything but a narrative crutch - and unsurprisingly falters.

Once she craftily unchains herself and finds a way to move around the facility, the film relies on a lot of lazy staging. As she makes her way through this labyrinthine place, we get scene after scene in which she has to sneak past someone, or hide behind (or underneath, or inside) something. I'm sure this wasn't intended, but the middle scenes of Rupture play like a video game. One of those games where you're constantly hiding from armed guards and no one ever hears you as long as you wait for their backs to be turned before slipping into another room left inexplicably unlocked. I half-expected to see a chicken dinner and a first-aid kit sitting in the corner of one of the rooms.

Rapace is such a gifted physical performer that she keeps these scenes from being a complete waste. If nothing else, this movie gets credit for its casting. But it's a lot of energy - a lot of Rapace's blood, sweat and tears - for a movie that doesn't know how to take its interesting concepts to the next level. By the time spiders make their way back into the story, creeping back into this character's mind, the film has shifted firmly into cheapo horror territory. Shainberg and Nelson proceed to make things even worse with a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too finale that basically erases Rupture's ideas for something more emotionally - but falsely - palatable.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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