Sunday, June 28, 2009

In short: Session 9 (2001)

Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullan), the owner of a small company specialized in asbestos removal, has seen better times. On the surface, his life his fine - his marriage is happy, he has just become a father for the first time, he is good at his job. But a closer look reveals that he is barely holding it together. He and his his wife and are stressed out from their new baby and Gordon's company is close to folding.

The last chance to prevent the latter lies with a removal job in the decrepit Danvers State Hospital. Gordon is only able secure the contract by accepting an insane time frame for the work and doing what his foreman Phil (David Caruso) estimates to take three weeks in one.

As if this wouldn't be enough to ensure tension between the men, there's also bad blood between Phil and Hank (Josh Lucas). Both men hate each other's guts since Hank hooked up with Phil's now ex-girlfriend. The other workers - Mike, the intellectual of the group (co-author Stephen Gevedon) and Gordon's teenage mulleted nephew Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) - try to keep out of it, but it doesn't exactly make for a friendly working environment.

Then there is the Danvers Asylum itself, a place that seems to have a mind of its own and whose atmosphere seems to influence the men's mood towards the worst. On the first day, the building leads Mike to the recordings of the therapy sessions of Mary, a young girl suffering from multiple personality disorder. Somehow, Mary's sessions hold the key to the things the men are experiencing.

Session 9 is the film Brad Anderson (a man with a strange career trajectory if I ever have seen one) made before his Academy Award winning The Machinist and is the stronger of the two films for me. There are obvious parallels in the way both films are constructed, with the movie version of an untrustworthy narrator and a resulting narrative twist that works, but Session 9 does it just a little bit better than the later movie by keeping its narrative a little more diffuse and trusting its viewers to do much of the decoding work herself.

But what makes Session 9 so great is something more. It is the way really every part of the film comes together just right. An excellent acting ensemble, an intelligent script, the absolutely disturbing location of Danvers State Hospital, direction and (also done by Anderson) editing as well as brilliant sound design slowly build a lingering atmosphere of dread until everything culminates in a short and silent burst of violence.

Session 9 is in fact one of my favorite horror films of the last ten years, built with just the right measures of psychology, creepiness and sadness, eschewing the usual technique of sending its viewers home with simple explanations or a joke, preferring to keep you off-balance even after the final scene is over.


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