Chicago filmmaker Jennifer Reeder’s fifth, most impressive and elegantly gory film to date, “Fail” begins with two eyes on cheap excitement, where the film turns upside down and sideways very quickly.
A girl in a red parka, a hint of red, is walking down a residential street at night. He looks over his shoulder one, two, three times. Heavy male breath fills the music. Then jump forward to the killer’s lair. “Now take a deep breath, Evelyn,” the hideous masked man tells his captive, adding: “Girls like you don’t know what they have until it’s all gone.”
We passed that street very often in our cinema life. But Reeder has other ideas. It’s a shrewd, poetic and bloody vision of predation, women’s rage, women’s survival, and all kinds of shape-shifting women learn out of necessity when they’re young.
Reeder’s protagonist is Jonny, short for Jonquil, played by Kiah McKirnan (“The Adults”, “Mare of Easttown”), the first-class chameleon. At the age of 18, she leaves town to live with her decadent, troubled father (Tim Hopper) to live with her great-aunt Hildie, portrayed by Alicia Silverstone with her 19th-century oratory and mood, just down the block and across the street from Catherine Deneuve. In “Hunger”.
“Fail” is not a vampire movie or any traditional, predictable movie. It is clear from the first scene that Hildie will either kill Jonny or save him. As we learn quite early in the delightful surreal narrative, Hildie’s secret involves an ancestral trait: a curse? superpower? – Jonny needs to face this and evolve. He and his new group of high school seniors are fed up with their classmates disappearing, presumed dead at the hands of the killer.
“You have the eyes of a much older person,” says one school administrator who examined Jonny early on. Like many others on screen, he is the target of physical violence, in this case self-inflicted (a plastic surgery procedure is very popular). The scene is soon interrupted by the school staff’s nose bleeding. Many noses bleed in the story. This is the main fluid on the screen from start to finish, and the bloodshed in “Fail” gushes with the fertile spirit of many previous filmmakers, notably Brian De Palma and Dario Argento.
Jonny, like it or not, is accused of continuing a family tradition called “forever” (also the name of an earlier Reeder short film). As Hildie explained at one point, she can communicate more or less telepathically by putting her hand on someone, or simply through “deep ghostly empathy.” This element of “Fail” occasionally fades for dramatic impact, but thanks to Reeder’s wild twists and the film’s uniquely atmospheric texture, the film still works.
More importantly, some of the key conversations between the young characters, especially between Jonny and her new friend Elektra, played by Ireon Roach, are beautifully written and played in a naturalistic fashion. The movie is also unexpectedly hilarious, and the best parts (like the reprehensible principal’s gun-attack drills at school, parts we saw in action with the hashtags “Code: Massacre” and “Level: Bloodbath”) somehow find a way back. For more.
More broadly, much of Reeder’s work returns to his themes of persistent, painfully fruitful victimhood, toxic patriarchy, and a way forward – no retreat, no surrender. The footage and soundscapes of the film are often captivating, thanks to Reeder, cinematographer Sevdije Kastrati, and Yes Yes Yes composer Nick Zinner. The exact context of the movie’s release before it’s debut on Shudder on September 1 is a week in which “Bottoms” (which has a completely different atmosphere and energy) has been. also worth a visit) adopts many of the same ideas. So does the “Barbie” you may have heard of.
In the best way possible throughout his career, Reeder has expanded the fantasy/reality boundaries of his narratives while also returning to stories and characters rooted in trauma. This is his best work to date.
“Fail” – 3 stars (out of 4)
No MPA rating (violence, tongue, copious bodily fluids)
Running time: 1:40
How to watch: Premieres at the Music Box Theater on August 24. First Screenings on Shudder via AMC+ on September 1st.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.