“She’s not crazy — she just has a secret.”
Everyone has something to hide. You, reading this, right now, have something you could never tell anyone. Maybe you’ve got webbed feet? I, personally, can never tell anyone about my debilitating Pringles addiction. I popped, and now I cannot stop. In the case of Lavender, director and co-writer Ed Gass-Donnelly’s newest supernatural thriller, a family was brutally murdered, but the actual chain of events of the night remain mystery due to a traumatic head injury. Gosh darn if a random sighting of an eerie house doesn’t trigger repressed memories 25 years later, which lead to a slow-burn tension buffet of a film. Sure, it drags on a bit in the middle and takes a minute to really sink that hook in, but when it does, Lavender is satisfying and surprising enough to make the glacial pacing almost worth it.
Leading us through this haunted house flick is Abbie Cornish (conspicuously looking almost exactly like Katherine Hiegl) as Jane, a space-case photographer who often forgets to pick up her daughter Alice (Lola Flanery) from school. She’s having marital trouble with Alan (Diego Klattenhoff) for some assumed infidelity. Jane’s art exhibit, photographs of old, abandoned houses, showcases her fascination with the past and attempting to fill an unknown personal void. She explains that the houses are “empty vessels” and “epitaphs” to the life that once existed within. But then she’s in a cool, slow motion car accident and loses most of her memory. It’s then up to psychiatrist Liam (Justin “This Movie Feels” Long) to help Jane sort out her memories and regain them. All of them. Also, Dermot Mulroney as Uncle Farmhand!
To start, on a technical level, this film is impressively well made, especially for a limited budget picture. Cinematographer Brendan Steacy finds ways to make corn terrifying once again, while letting those sparsely used bold colors (such as a red balloon) really pop and make an impact on the washed-out and dusty world. Spooky vistas and wide angles just sit there, letting dread sink in as the audience takes in the sights. Helping is Gass’ knack for kinetic camera motion with a steady hand. There’s no shaky cam here whatsoever. Gass lets the camera gently glide along with characters as they walk. In particular, a rotating car crash shines, along with when he stops time itself to allow the camera to move through what are essentially still-life photographs during scenes of violence. It’s eerie and effective. I just wish the sound mixing was a little better, as footsteps sound poorly muffled, and the music sometimes overpowers dialogue. Said music, composed by Sarah Neufeld and Colin Stenson aka two collaborators of Arcade Fire, is repetitive, definitely, but haunting and beautiful, surely. Lots of good, effective string work, isolated violins, creepy music box bells. It’s no “Neon Bible” but what could be?
One glaring…thing about this film—I hesitate to use the word “issue,” so thing will suffice—is the fact that this is clearly a loving homage to Kubrick’s The Shining. There’s a maze made of hay, creepy almost-twins standing ominously, premonitions, and a kid at one point even says “(name) isn’t here right now.” It’s just as if The Overlook Hotel turned into a rural farmhouse. I don’t think it’s trying to rip anything off and cash in on those older ideas, though, because this film isn’t made cynically. It has a clear vision of what it’s trying to do, and it just so happens to borrow ideas to accomplish said goal. It’s not like Cornish winked into the camera or anything like that. All of it is used to create a sense of dread that’s threaded throughout every single moment of this film. The similarities may bother some people though, maybe.
A dissimilarity between the two would be how they handled pacing. Lots of long, lingering shots that are effective at building tension, but they don’t do much for development. I only checked the time once, because after the half-way mark, stuff does indeed start to pick up towards a cathartic conclusion. But jeez Louise, I shouldn’t have to ask myself “Hey, so, when is this gonna get intriguing?” after the first act. They planted the seeds of a hook, but it didn’t really sprout until closer to the third act, which is the best part of the film. It’s not even too long of a movie. I love me a good slow burn, oh man. Turn on The House of the Devil or the OG Halloween and I’m set for the night. But the wick still has to actually be lit aflame at some point, y’know? Like, don’t get me wrong. This film is dripping with atmosphere. It’d make any rapper say that they wanna get with “’dat atmosphere.” But…there isn’t much of a point to have feelings without any sort of story element or character to tie them around, however.
Early reviews of this film, back from when it premiered at the Tribeca film festival way back in 2016, said that the slow pacing made this film an earnest character-driven drama. As decent a performance that Cornish gave, there really isn’t that much to her character, let alone any particular character, in this film. Taking a page from Gosling and Refn’s work on Drive, apparently lots of dialogue was removed from this film, opting for a “show, don’t tell” tactic that leaves a bit to be desired. Jane’s blank, fugue-state face is well and good, but that’s pretty much the only face we get for the whole movie. Her interactions with Alice feel like genuine deadbeat mom-precocious child exchanges, and they’re kinda fun with the kid being all smart alec-y. Jane’s initial interactions with the husband are terse and passive-aggressive, like any good dissolving marriage should be. Those are good. But otherwise, Cornish’s disaffected tone and occasional over-annunciation are her most memorable characteristics.
Despite taking out chunks of dialogue, the film still does tell a twisting and winding tale of repressed memories coming back to the surface. Who is the real monster? Ahh! As much as I seemingly ragged on this flick, Lavender does do a well enough job of setting up the mystery of the murders, makes the audience ask questions and scrutinize the actions of the characters. The ghosts are nice and spooky and cryptic enough to propel interest scene-to-scene. And, believe it or not, the ending bit will surprise you. It’s a complete Shamalan-type twist, y’know, but again, it’s not cynical. It works and it makes sense, as far as ghost story logic goes. I totally thought I had this whole thing figured out at the start of the third act, only to be taken in a totally different direction, winding up at a different destination than I had anticipated. Big merit for that, truly.
At the end of the day, Lavender may not be the most original film, borrowing many points and beats from other, grander thrillers of yesteryear, but it weaves it’s own quiet, unsettling tale and makes it pop with stellar cinematography and an intense atmosphere that grips your throat and doesn’t let go. I can totally see why Gass was listed as one of 2011’s “film makers to watch” by Variety. He’s got a handle on how to craft a feeling for the audience and how to guide them along on dreamlike journeys. He makes a pretty picture, too, that’s for sure. There should be a relatable character in there, somewhere, to help with that journey, though. I’m really not sold on Cornish’s performance, either. If you’re looking for a slow and somber mood piece, and The Sixth Sense isn’t available to you, I’d say maybe consider watching Lavender.