THE UNRAVELING: Limp Horror With A Silly Twist
Despite a strong premise, The Unraveling is a film that doesn't quite go to that dark place that it should, with poor writing and acting.
The Unraveling is another of those “murder in the woods” movies that involves unseen assailants – sometimes supernatural, sometimes not – picking off a group of friends one by one. You’ve seen it in The Blair Witch Project and The Evil Dead, and this year in Killing Ground and The Ritual. Towards the end, just in case you hadn’t worked it out, this one throws in a spooky cabin to illustrate precisely where its influences lie. Admittedly, co-writer/director Thomas Jakobsen tries to give the formula a twist, but his film is never scary nor interesting enough to truly engage.
The Michael problem
Michael (Zack Gold) is a heroin addict, who has stolen $12,000 from sinister drug dealer Achilles (George Ketsios). His long-suffering wife-to-be, Jess (Cooper Harris), is pregnant and he lies to her about having kicked his habit. Michael is “abducted” by a bunch of friends and taken to the woods for a weekend-long bachelor party, but good cheer is in short supply (there is distance between the men due to his drug-fueled past behavior). However, matters take a darker turn when one of their number is found dead, his face swathed in plastic wrap (or “cling film”, as we call it in the UK). Someone nasty is out in the woods and wants Michael and his posse dead, presumably vengeful Achilles or people who work for him.
Self-confessed “fucking junkie” Michael is totally unsympathetic, his friends a bunch of interchangeable Brosephs, without a decent line of dialogue between them. We’re not given an explanation as to how or why Michael has acquired a habit, which might have made him more bearable. Perhaps first-time helmer Jakobsen hopes the fact his protagonist is going to be a husband and father is sufficient grounds to cut him some slack. But Jess and her kid would almost certainly be better off without Michael in their lives. Gold’s rather inert performance doesn’t help matters any.
Michael is a character it’s hard to believe in. As he runs from danger, his addiction, or withdrawal from it, doesn’t seem to slow him down too much. I’m not necessarily asking for a full Trainspotting-style meltdown, complete with dead baby hallucinations, but Michael looks like he has no more than a mild bout of the sniffles. He doesn’t “unravel” so much as get a bit out of breath and look like he could do with a decent meal and a hug.
You could argue he’s a high-functioning addict but, in this context, what would be the point of that? Surely, we need to witness the unpleasant effects of his addiction; to see him suffer a bit – freak out, throw up, almost admit defeat, before rallying to fight back against his hidden enemies. That might have been a movie worth seeing.
Where’s the fear-factor?
The main problem with The Unraveling, though, is the total absence of genuine chills. The film I saw immediately before it – The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) – contains more blood than you’ll see here, and that’s directed by Noah Baumbach for goodness’ sake! You pretty much figure out where Jakobsen is taking things early on, and so his film becomes more about the journey than trying to second-guess where it is going to end up. Unfortunately, getting from A to B isn’t nearly as unsettling or visceral as it should or could be. In fact, everything feels rather flat.
There’s little to shock about the deaths here and that lessens the sense of jeopardy (Oh no, his head is covered in plastic wrap – the horror!). The fact you feel so little for the one-dimensional characters is problematic, too. The best chillers work on a level where everything is heightened and amplified – big, dramatic and exaggerated, building incrementally to a fever pitch. The Unraveling fails to do that; it just limps predictably along, before petering out when the twist arrives, not like a punch to the gut, but a damp sponge to the face.
And we need to talk about that twist (spoilers coming, so buckle up). A disastrous attempt at an intervention from Jess and his mates to shock Michael back to reality might have made sense. Instead, we’re expected to believe the whole thing has been some sort of ground-breaking addiction treatment program, with Michael its patient. Because believing you’ve just seen all your friends slaughtered, and your girlfriend and unborn child imperilled, is precisely the way to get off heroin, isn’t it? None of that is going to leave Michael with any further mental or emotional scars, he might want to self-medicate to suppress, is it?
I get that seeing his friends supposedly die is meant to be analogous with how addicts hurt those nearest and dearest to them, and that would be fine… if it didn’t turn out the whole thing had been little more than a glorified game of pretend.
The cover of The Unraveling DVD boasts that it was voted #1 in the “Best Plot Twists” category at FrightFest 2016. I can only imagine it must have been an exceptionally lean year, in which all the other contenders finished with the words “And then I woke up”.
In conclusion: The Unraveling
The Unraveling has a strong premise and could have been a refreshingly unusual take on an overstuffed sub-genre. Sadly, the film’s execution is lackluster. The whole thing needed punching up – made scarier, crazier, nastier, more imaginative. It’s a great shame because you don’t have to look too hard to find things to admire. Yuichiro Oku’s score is pleasingly off-kilter, Milton Santiago’s location photography is top-notch, and there’s little wrong with debutant Jakobsen’s direction either. Alas, it’s the acting and the writing that really let this down.
What is your favorite addiction film? Requiem For A Dream, Trainspotting, or something else?
The Unraveling is available now on DVD in the UK.
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