Thursday, January 17, 2013

Review of YellowBrickRoad

My partner and I just watched YellowBrickRoad.  I loved some things about it, and hated other things.  Here's my take.  The direction was beautiful, and I was grateful to some extent that it wasn't found-footage for a change (this story easily could have been; all the elements are there).  The acting was really great, and I found this to be all the more well-done when I realized that I actually cared what happened, and was truly upset at some of the more sinister moments in the movie.

[There Be (mild) Spoilers Ahead]

This film *hurt* to watch, not like in a Michael Bay way, but in the sense that I really hated to see these things happen to these people, and found myself talking to the characters as if they were friends I'd known a while.  This was the first time in a very long time that a movie made me feel physically ill with sympathy and horror.  I am almost certain to have rich nightmares because of it.  That's a mark in its favor for fans of horror who like the genre at its best, for the depth of emotions it can evoke.

The cinematography was fantastically minimalist and they accomplish a whole hell of a lot with very, very little.  The soundtrack was definitely one of its best features, not for having a list of good songs, but for how the music itself interacts with the characters and the audience.  To the extent that there were "effects", they were remarkably subtle, even when they weren't all that subtle, and again the minimal approach made the visceral moments that much more upsetting.

It's also not a gore-fest in the traditional sense, which in my opinion makes it more difficult to ignore; there is definite gore, but it's all the more horrifying because the director used it sparingly and wisely.  In a really bad splatter movie, you can't see the human beings beneath all the cartoonish piles of meat and fluids, which I think actually makes it "safer".  You get a disconnect that allows you to transcend the suspension of disbelief long enough to make it through.  This movie doesn't allow you to do that, which is one of its strengths.

The story was (at first) delightfully confusing.  It didn't lead the audience by the hand; it didn't tell you what was going on, and where there was exposition, it was in the form of brushstrokes.  They know you have a brain, and if you don't you should watch a different movie.  There is a provenance to the kind of narrative they were using: it was a little bit "The River" and of course a hair of Blair Witch with just a dollop of Very Bad Things.  Yet it wasn't a found-footage movie, and for that I'm grateful.  All the elements were there, and it easily could have been.  The director clearly decided to go for the postmodern approach, though, and the symbolism, to borrow from Tolkien, "never breaks through".  Nothing is explained; it speaks for itself.  Yet there is a clear allegory there, however dark, and it's well constructed as allegories go.  All of this points to Great Movie.

The problem, for me, was what it had to say.  It's not to say that it said it badly, but that it said it at all.  I would like to think that YellowBrickRoad was the most nihilistic thing I've ever seen, but unfortunately it isn't.  In fact (and I know this is a bad thing for a fan of horror to say these days), I'm sick of nihilism.  There has always been a somewhat nihilistic streak in horror, but over the last two decades that streak has become an overpowering wave.  This is not an exciting story to tell anymore; in fact it's tedious, as nihilism ultimately always ultimately is.  I don't expect every story to be a life affirming thrill ride, but I really would love it if I didn't feel like I'd been led on only to realize that feeling of being led on was the only point the movie had to make in the end.

The reason found footage movies are so ubiquitous (other than the fact that they are relatively cheap to make and also riding the coat-tails of other such films) is that they allow the storytellers to put the characters, all of the characters, in danger.  The old certainties (at least one survivor) are stripped away.  Unfortunately, this too often means that killing everyone off is almost obligatory for this generation and genre.  That holds true for YellowBrickRoad:  This was not a found footage movie, but it read like one in a lot of ways, good and bad.

At the end, I feel like this is a good movie overall.  I was disheartened by it, and sickened, and made to feel anguish and loss and frustration and (the real Holy Grail of Horror) fear.  Serious, honest fear; the kind that comes from the final uncertainty and the tragedy of the self-conscious yet uncontrollable march of time and failure.  The complaint that I do have is with the final message, which also reads unfortunately as a bit smug.  Of course, I'm probably just projecting.

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