It wasn’t your typical Thursday night as I once again found myself at the Bloor Hot Doc Cinema for another night of thrills and horror at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. The penultimate night of the fest brought us In Their Skin, a film from first time director Jeremy Power Regimbal about a home invasion. Instead of Horror, it was Terror that was on the plate for this evening as the movie was promoted as a suspenseful thriller. While it might not have delivered too much on the suspense part, it definitely brought us a very different story that focused on greed, envy an isolation.
The film stars Selma Blair and Joshua Close who play Mark and Mary Hughes, a couple who are trying to get over the loss of their daughter, who was killed earlier in the year in a car accident. They, along with their son, Brendon, have taken a trip to their ritzy, isolated cottage to attempt to reconnect with one another. A day after their arrival, they meet a young couple, Bobby and Jane (James D’arcy and Rachel Miner), and their boy, Jared. A bit overbearing but friendly enough, they invite themselves over for dinner at the Hughes that night. As the night progresses, it’s obvious that there’s something a bit off with Bobby and his family, so Mark ends up asking them to leave. But they come back……and this time, they’re not so friendly. The true story begins as these people take Mark and his family hostage and leads to a violent struggle between the two families. During this time, it is revealed that there is more going on than just a simple home invasion.
Calling this film a suspense thriller is a bit of misnomer. While there are a few moments of true suspense, the plot layout and execution take us down a somewhat predictable path and removes some of the mystery involved. We know what Bobby and Jane want from the outset as they make their intentions known pretty fast in this film. The true focus of this film is instead on the feeling of helplessness and isolation of the characters themselves. Much like Sushi Girl, which I got the chance to see the night before, this film lives and dies by its characters. You have to feel that both Mark and Mary are broken people who have not recovered from the loss of their little girl and probably never will. You have to feel the desperation of Bobby and his need to feel special and be a different person. You need to feel the hollowness of Jane and her desire to play roles because she doesn’t know who she is herself. Thankfully, I believe that all of this is felt in the piece and is brought to life both by the choice of camera movement and strength of character.
Regimbal does something very different for a film of this nature. Most filmmakers’ instinct in this situation would be to keep the camera moving. To create a feeling of speed to create tension between the characters to convey the lack of surety of the moment. He instead plants his camera and using a number of static shots to create an atmosphere that is void of any hope for his protagonists. The speed of the scenes slows down and the audience is left stuck in the moment with them and feel the helplessness. In a way, it comes off scarier than if it was shot more traditionally. It also adds a creepiness to the James D’arcy and Rachel Miner’s performance as our natural instinct is to avoid people like this but in this film, we’re stuck dealing with them with little to no relief. The approach is risky due to the fact that you run the risk of giving too much of a window into the moment and desensitizing them to the fear and hopelessness you’re trying to create. Fortunately, the gamble pays off as the characters continue to keep the same level of intensity throughout.
The performances for In Their Skin are, for the most part, well delivered. Selma Blair does an excellent job in the piece of going from an unhappy wife that feels alienated by her husband to a woman willing to do anything to ensure that her family stays alive. Her performance props up that of Joshua Close as her husband who, although great in both his scenes with Blair and in the final moments of the film, is not as strong on his own and at times feels a bit wooden. This woodeness lends itself at parts to the perception of his inability to deal with his emotions due to his grief but ultimately weakens his performance over all. The MVPs of the film were Bobby, Jane and Jared, played respectively by D’arcy, Miner, and Alex Farris. They each have an uncomfortable quality that is evident from the beginning and the severity of that discomfort rises with each scene they have on screen. D’arcy especially revels in this creepiness that exudes from him. He starts at a level on par with a nosy neighbor. As the story progresses, he appears to be obsessed with information on the Hughes, akin to a stalker’s mentality. By film’s end, he’s revealed his true self as a jealous and angry individual who is looking to becomes someone, anyone who is not himself and is determined to let nothing get in his way from becoming that person. A great example of this determination comes in the form of mimicry that both D’arcy and Miner perform throughout the film. They continue to copy and pick up on the mannerisms of Close and Blair, at times to the point where it’s almost distracting. The performances are nuanced but lacking all subtlety. It feels more realistic than I expected it be.
There are those that might dismiss this film for not having a strong plot or lacking motivations for its antagonists. I feel that that is not the point of the story. The film is not so much a story but an experience of people at their most desperate. The motivations for Bobby and his “family” may not be played out in detail but they are there. The characters, while not fully developed in the narrative, are developed through the emotions they evoke in their audience. After the film, during the Q&A, the director spoke about the idea for this film coming together during the wake of the economic downturn and incorporating that with the fear of identity theft. I felt that these themes were well covered within the picture. If you’re looking for a Hitchcock tale, this film is not for you. But this film is more about pushing someone to their breaking point and conveying that in a setting that’s more realistic than your Hollywood thriller.
If you’re looking for an cool indie film with strong performances and interesting subject matter, I suggest you check out In Their Skin. It’s not the most original story but what it lacks in originality it makes up for by delivering a visceral character piece. The film has a limited release that begins in today in Canada and on November 9th in the States. Check it out if you get the chance.
For more info on In Their Skin, check out their facebook page.
To check the schedule for the remaining film screenings, go to torontoafterdark.com.
And if you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!