A cat is never a good thing to see early in a horror film. So when we see one in the family home in the opening minutes I was worried! Little did I realise at the time how great a presence this cat would have throughout the film and just how much it would stand for. Also, this isn’t your conventional horror film! So leave all expectations at the door.
We are introduced to Nancy, played by a drab and dishevelled Andrea Riseborough, as she assists her Parkinsons-afflicted mother Betty (Ann Dowd) in the bathroom. Though Riseborough dons a comically bad wig, it kind of works for her character who wears minimal to no make-up, cracked nail varnish and dowdy attire. But then no-one is polished in this film. Everyone looks bedraggled, exhausted and like the weight of the world is pressing firmly down upon their shoulders. Let’s make no bones about it, this is such a bleak film that at one point Nancy empties a tin of cat food into a bowl and I 100% believed she was going to eat it herself.
Nancy’s life is at times a sham, a lie, a façade but for what reasons? She shows colleagues photo-shopped images of her trip to North Korea. She masquerades as Becca in online forums pretending to be pregnant and on the verge of aborting her baby. She strikes up an online friendship with Jeb14 (John Leguizamo) who has lost a child of his own. Her lie continues when she agrees to meet him in the real world. Leguizamo’s mild-mannered Jeb is hard to read at this stage. Is he the benevolent grieving father or is he the malevolent stranger on the internet. Sadly, he is criminally under-used in this film. No sooner is he introduced, he is taken away from us, never to be mentioned again nor his presence sufficiently explained. There’s a point later on when Nancy discusses a significant lack of a certain figure from her past and I instantly said to myself ‘right, that’s who Leguizamo clearly is’, but this came to nothing either.
Nancy wakes one morning to find her mother has passed away in her sleep. If there is any regret or remorse about not taking her to the hospital about the pain in her hand it doesn’t show. She is a blank canvas. Nancy’s glassy-eyed gaze suggests she knows that her life is about to change significantly without Betty in her life. But for the better or for the worse remains to be seen.
As she makes funeral arrangements the emotion takes its toll. Scenes of her smoking, drinking and wandering the streets play out. But things become extremely intriguing when she flicks on the TV and sees the haunted faces of Leo & Ellen (Steve Buscemi & J.Smith-Cameron). They are appealing for information 30 years after their daughter Brooke mysteriously disappeared. An artist’s impression of what their daughter may now look like strikes a remarkable resemblance to Nancy. In an incredibly creepy shot, Nancy prints out the artist’s impression and holds the sheet up alongside her own features. She gets in touch with the distraught couple and breaks the news that she thinks she may be their long-lost child.
So, are we to believe that she really believes this? Or, grieving as she is, does she just need a mother figure? Nancy certainly seems sincere in her conviction but as the rest of the film plays out we come to wonder if there isn’t an element of willful ignorance in the plight of a mother looking for a daughter and a daughter looking for a mother?
The acting is understated, the shots are dimly-lit and the setting is snowy and filled with portent. There are a number of scenes which suggest more is going on that meets the eye. The ghostly keyboard soundtrack is unobtrusive but the odd occasion it rears its head it is at exactly the right time and doesn’t outstay its welcome. Like a minimal version of the Goblins score from the original Suspiria, it queues us just enough to remind us we are watching something perhaps slightly more sinister than first appears. A photo-shoot in an attic has an uncomfortable and awkward feel to it. Conversations around Shelly Jackson, a novelist who wrote a contemporary adaptation of Frankenstein, seem to suggest a correlation with our protagonist.
Steve Buscemi instantly steals the show as soon as he appears on screen. I think this is very unfortunate for Riseborough because it’s not that her performance is underwhelming, rather it’s that her character is one that simply wants to disappear completely. Even a restrained Buscemi performance threatens to overwhelm her light each time they share a scene together. There’s even a brief scene with Buscemi and Smith-Cameron alone in the kitchen together talking in hushed tones. It made me wonder if the film might not be more compelling if it were to focus on them, with Nancy joining as a supporting character in the later acts.
As Ellen and Nancy spend more time together and begin to bond, it becomes apparent that it’s less important about whether they really do share flesh and blood. What takes priority is what they both need. What they both want. Whether Leo agrees or not. All the while the ticking time bomb of the results of a DNA test threatens to shatter the equilibrium they are trying to build for themselves.
By the time the credits roll some questions are answered but some are not. Your appreciation for the film will boil down to whether the answers you get satisfied you and whether or not you’re happy for some things to remain unknown. The reason this film worked for me is also the reason it fell flat. It dared to make us doubt every single character we encountered, but didn’t have the conviction to either reward or punish that doubt with a convincing pay-off. The beauty at the heart of the films message is about everyone needing someone. Everyone needing to be needed. Needing to know you are needed.
Which brings us back to the cat. Everyone needs a cat. Does the cat make it to the end? You’ll have to see for yourself.
Directed by: Christina Choe
Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Steve Buscemi, Ann Dowd
Release Date: (TBA)