Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Some thoughts about At the Devil’s Door (2014)

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I’ve gone on record as a big admirer of director Nicholas McCarthy’s first feature, The Pact. However, I’m not as enamoured of this second film of his. It might be the use of particularly tired and tried out material in form of the rather en vogue demonic possession/Christian apocalypse mythology, it might be the film’s curious and interesting but not necessarily effective structure, or most probably a combination of both. So while I found myself appreciating McCarthy’s often highly artful direction, the way he often subverts suburban American values, I never actually felt sucked into the story as such, feeling kept at a distance to the story as well as its protagonists.

The clever shifting of protagonist identities doesn’t exactly help with the latter, and while the shift is certainly interesting and makes sense in the context of the story, it can’t help but distance a viewer further from characters that aren’t very deeply drawn anyway.’ For example, co-protagonist Leigh feels lonely and wants babies because she can’t have them, her artist sister Vera can have babies but distrusts all forms of closeness, probably some stuff to do with their dead parents but that’s really all the film ever tells our shows us about them. It’s particularly curious after a film like The Pact that was all about complex characterisation. What we learn of the characters does of course fit into the film’s argument against suburban values but also turns them into parts of an equation instead of something with breath and life (all efforts of some excellent actresses – men are of practically no import in the film at all – notwithstanding), an approach that actually reminds me of Kubrick, a director whose films – depth, craft and mastership notwithstanding – leave me utterly cold.

On the conceptual level, there’s a lot to appreciate here: the way the film plays pregnancy as the absolute worst thing for one of its characters certainly plays nicely with the assumed audience idea of how women are “supposed” to relate to children. Which might be another reason why I didn’t really connect with the film, because I personally don’t share these assumptions about “motherhood” at all. And, as I have mentioned previously, I think, my atheism does not really help me feeling creeped out by the whole “possessed by the devil”, “the number of the beast” angle. Though, after some consideration, I think it’s fair to say that the most conventional possession horror scenes are At the Devil’s Door’s weakest parts even if you don’t suffer from my specific handicap; they’re just too clichéd right now, like vampire sex or ticking bomb torture scenarios.

Having said all this, McCarthy does still demonstrate an incredible directing talent. Even though I didn’t like the distancing effect of the film’s narrative structure, he still handles it really well on a technical level. One also just has to praise McCarthy’s sense for meaningful scene setting, his use of deep focus as well as background details consciously out of focus, the gliding camera and the highly effective sound design. The more I think about it, the more I think the problem’s really with me and not with At the Devil’s Door. Oh well.

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