Review by Rich Cline | 3/5

dir Scott Cooper
scr Henry Chaisson, Nick Antosca, Scott Cooper
prd Guillermo del Toro, David S Goyer, J Miles Dale
with Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, Jeremy T Thomas, Amy Madigan, Graham Greene, Scott Haze, Rory Cochrane, Sawyer Jones, Cody Davis, Lyla Marlow, Jesse Downs, Arlo Hajdu
release US/UK 29.Oct.21
21/US Searchlight 1h39

plemons madigan greene

Is it streaming?

thomas and russell
While filmmaker Scott Cooper adds plenty of shadowy atmosphere throughout this creepy horror movie, it's never particularly scary, because the pacing is too elusive to build up a proper head of steam. There are strong elements in the story's connections with Native American folklore, but these are merely used as gimmicky touches. If the script had unpacked the characters and situations, it might have burrowed more deeply under the skin.
In rural Oregon, schoolteacher Julia (Russell) has just moved back home to live with her sheriff brother Paul (Plemons) following their father's death. Now she's worried about her painfully nervous 12-year-old student Lucas (Thomas). And she doesn't even know that he's living in a house without electricity, feeding roadkill to his feral father (Haze) and frightened little brother (Jones), who are locked in the attic. Meanwhile, Paul is investigating a particularly grisly murder in a nearby abandoned mine. And when he finally looks into what's happening at Lucas' house, he makes a grisly discovery.
Thankfully, there's an indigenous elder (Greene) who can explain the mythology of an evil spirit stalking anything that lives. And Cooper does eventually reveal the antlered beast in its full glory. But he takes his time getting there, with slowly churning set-pieces that unsettle but never quite manage to surprise the audience. The film is beautifully designed to keep everything in near darkness, although that means that most scares are of the jumpy variety.

Russell solidly anchors the story in Julia's darkly nasty past and her feisty resilience as a survivor. So her outrageous heroics in the final act actually make sense, even if they feel a bit silly. She also has a very nice connection with Plemons, whose Paul is a good guy who tries to maintain an even keel, even when things are cutting loose. Thomas has terrific presence as the young boy dealing with something he really shouldn't be near. And the superb Madigan gets into the action as Julia's boss.

It's a shame that there's so little going on under the surface, because this looks like a movie that should mean something. The slow-building horror is effective, as is the nicely contained frenzy of action violence in the climactic scenes. But the details feel dropped in simply as shorthand for any proper characterisations, which makes it very difficult to care what happens to anyone. We can enjoy the skilled acting and filmmaking, but nothing about this movie lingers afterwards.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 25.Oct.21

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© 2021 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall