Directed By William Brent Bell
Starring – Rupert Friend, Brian Cox, Madeline Brewer
The Plot – 8-year-old Jenny (Violet McGraw) is constantly caught in the middle of the feuding between her lawyer mother Maggie (Mamie Gummer) and artist father Jeff (Friend). She leads a lonely but imaginative life, surrounded by puppets called “Grisly Kin”, which are based on the works of her father. When Maggie is tragically killed in a hit-and-run, Jeff and Jenny try to piece together a new life. But when Maggie’s father (Cox) sues for custody, and babysitter Samantha (Brewer) tries to be the new woman of the house, life in their Brooklyn townhome takes a dark turn. The puppets and frightening characters come to life and Jenny is the only person who can see them. When the motives of the ghoulish creatures become clear, the lives of everyone are put very much in jeopardy.
Rated R for adult language, some violence and brief drug use
– Effective stage. If there’s one thing that Bell successfully attains in his often disheveled execution, it’s the abundance of atmospheric dread that not only works through a paranormal lens, but also a marital one, as seen through the eyes of these disparaging partners. Because these people are continuously reminded of better times between them when they were a happy family, the film attains a metaphorical ghost story long before the chaos and carnage materializes, competently setting the stage for the inevitability of enveloping tragedy that eventually evolves into a full-fledged psychological horror film sprung from the pages of the movie’s artist protagonist. In being with these characters for 102 minutes, you start to painfully digest the doom and gloom circumstance that seems to grow despairingly closer with each passing scene, even drifting over to the movie’s presentation with a resonating colorless drab feeding cohesively to the lukewarm personalities of this loveless environment.
– Clever ideas. Aside from the metaphorical ghost story sprung from a marriage on the rocks, screenwriters Nick Amadeus and Josh Braun instill a wide range of lore and movements to the paranormal entities that I wish pertained to a completely different film. In this regard, the concepts in character designs and make-up give the film its only brush with remote chilliness, reminding me a lot of the things that go bump in the night during “Insidious”, but still attaining that level of intrigue in the mystery and ambiguity that they leave the film unresolved from. This is a benefit for me because I’ve always believed the less you know about an antagonist in a horror movie, the longer they’re able to sustain the mystique that keeps them from being relatable, persisting in the element of uncertainty that never telegraphs their movements from a mile away. It proves that some shred of ingenuity went into the composition of this script that fed on originality, but unfortunately falls victim to a series of tropes and cliches that it surrounds itself with in feeling like just another one of the pack.
– Underwhelmingly flat. My investment towards the film grew increasingly strained the longer it goes with distancing itself from anything that remotely resembles tension, suspense, and even frights in the way of a horror first genre classification. This is worst during the movie’s introductory opening act, where 25 minutes of repetitive backstory and exposition dominate the story before we can even get to anything that resembles some measure of the meat in material that its audience came looking for. Beyond that, the film does little to justify its coveted R-rating, never experimenting with gore, brutality or unnerving imagery in a way that justifies the stamp of approval that omits the teenage audience who will make up more than half of demographic who would even be interested in seeing it. It’s an adult narrative with nothing adult about its material, feeling like a lukewarm, undercooked sampling of better films with a tighter grip on what kind of a movie they capably were.
– Detestable characters. Who do we the audience invest in when the personalities surrounding our story would be better served as victims in the face of an unforeseen evil? First there’s Maggie, whose one-note bitchiness overstays its welcome by the third time she talks, taking a protective instinct within a mother, and transforming her into a mind-numbingly wet blanket that soaks up the charisma in each scene she accompanies. From there, the father Jeff is an abandoning pot-smoking slug who feels more determined to draw a meaningless comic book than spend a single solitary second with his daughter. The effects of which lead to her falling and landing on her head in the opening ten minutes of the movie. As for said girl, Jenny, she plays into the abundance of cliches as a creepy kid played too inhumanely to feel relatable towards. So in a movie with three dominating leads, all of which toxic to my enjoyment of the film, it makes for an uninvesting experience that feels incapable of attaining the indulgence associated with the ‘Bad things happening to good people’ ideal that cinema is crazy about, and makes much of “Separation” an unfortunate title when you realize it alludes to the characters separating from themselves, and not us the audience separating from a group of characters who should’ve been the first victims from any horror film.
– The primary antagonist. I’m not speaking about any adversary in the movie, or even a character for that matter, but actually the movie’s clumsy editing, which creates no shortage of continuity issues for the integrity of the storytelling. With spoiling as little as I can here while giving examples, there are a few sequences that convey an idea that doesn’t mirror what we the audience are seeing in frame. For instance, one scene revolves around Jeff and Jenny spending the whole day together in a park, and then is followed by dialogue in the next scene when they run into each other, and Jenny talks about how much she missed her dad. There’s also scenes featured in the movie’s trailer that are established in one continuity, but made bizaringly different in the movie. Such an instance revolves around a sequence with Jenny in the attic, where she mentions “She (The ghost) let her in”. Then, two scenes later, in a completely different day, Jenny ends up back in the attic, but in a cut with the ghost in frame, we notice Jenny is wearing a completely different outfit than the one established in that day, and it’s the exact same one that she wore in the original attic soon. WOW!!! This movie seriously thinks we’re dumb enough to not notice continuity in clothes like that when it tries to distort the editing of its storytelling? Give me a break.
– Jarring presentation. “Separation” was made for less than two million dollars, and when you factor in some of the directing handicaps created by Bell’s own presentation, as well as the abundance of blunders associated with the special effects, you start to see where this money wasn’t spread on the canvas of this picture. There are obviously heavy green-screen instilled backdrops imbedded to subway sequences, and horrendously lifeless in air falling shots for characters that were so poorly directed that you almost laugh at the reactions garnered from the emotionally flat cast that make up the entirety of this ensemble. It becomes fairly evident that none of these things were necessary to the importance of the scenes they accommodate, but when you have an ambitious director who doesn’t know how to shoot and explore ambition with the best bang for your buck, you get a painfully hollow representation that feels outdated by 2002’s levels of inferior computer generation. Truly appalling.
– Buffet of cliche’s. I previously mentioned how this movie settles for the lowest of hanging fruit instead of carving out a niche of its own for the purpose of identity, and it is perhaps the biggest obstacle that this movie has in garnering any semblance of unpredictable cinema. The first is the heaviest example on this film, and that is dream sequences, to which there are at least five of them in a movie. Considering Bell is a director who loves this trope so much that he literally used one after the other in “Brahms: The Boy 2”, his lack of learning here feels like he’s unapologetically trolling the audience, especially considering there’s so very little advancement in scenes that don’t involve a dream. Secondly, the jump scares, while more restrained than other contemporary offerings, is still very much persistent in this film to oversaturating levels of necessity. Finally, there’s one character whose soul motivation is to be the exposition machine who unloads clarity for characters seeking answers. How this character is able to attain this level of information for something unforeseen before the events in the film is a conversation for another day, but what’s most frustrating about his dialogue is how obvious and on-the-nose it is at accommodating a movement that is only minutes from happening. It’s like he speaks with just the right information at just the right moments, and wouldn’t be any more practical if his name was quite literally “Plot device”.
– Poor direction. Everything I’ve already mentioned about Bell’s directing could be a tombstone for why I hope he never commands a film again, but the most compromising instance is on the motivation he gives to the ensemble cast, which doesn’t attain a single solitary credible performance between them. For Friend, a lack of convincing and believability registers with his deliveries, which are as cold as they flat in attaining a shred of emotional resonance. A lot of the time, it’s the way he reacts to his daughter being in trouble, with a patiently calm demeanor, that is most compromising to the integrity of scene, leading to several instances of annoying over endearing for the central protagonist of this movie. For Gummer, it’s much worse, outlining a character who we should empathize with for the way she was forced to take a job she hated just so she could be the only one taking care of this family’s needs. This should be clearly evident as an adult we reason with, especially when in contrast to her loser husband, but because of the way Bell directs her, her most distinguishing characteristic is her obnoxiousness. It’s so bad that I clapped when she got hit by a car (Not a spoiler) early on in the movie, if even just for the benefit of not having to experience her for the remainder of the movie.
– Failed twist. Every horror movie has one, so why not another? The detriment to this version of third act switch-out pertains to one particular character who I initially didn’t even care about, which now raises more questions than answers, considering the rest of the movie doesn’t support this newfound knowledge about this character. One positive aspect that I can say is that I didn’t see this coming, but that’s only because the bumbling aspect of its inclusion is so unnecessary and contradictory to every ounce of exposition that came before it, complete with conveniences that I guess we are supposed to subdue and not think about because horror cinema is about shutting off your mind and just having a good time with the material. It’s a convoluted shift whose only purpose feels like the padding of the already far too overstuffed final run time, and feels all the more unnecessary when you experience how it’s resolved within the lasting power of its effect on the rest of the film following it.
My Grade: 2/10 or F-