Overview: When a photographer suffers memory loss after a car accident, she must use her photographs and the people around her to recover memories both recent and distant, uncovering secrets about her past that may have been better left forgotten. Samuel Goldwyn Films; 2017; Not Rated; 92 minutes.
Final Girl: Lavender, directed and co-written by Ed Gass-Donnelly, and co-written by Colin Frizzell, is a psychological thriller with a strong visual character that loses its cohesion thematically, and falters most grievously in its characterization.
Jane (Abbie Cornish), is a photographer with an affinity for photographing abandoned homes. She is the sole survivor of a horrific childhood incident that she doesn’t remember, in which her entire family was killed. Her memory is altered for a second time in a car accident, after which memories of her past slowly come back to haunt her. Using these clues and the help of her husband (Diego Klattenhoff), estranged uncle (Dermot Mulroney), and psychiatrist (Justin Long), she solves the mystery of her childhood, uncovering the truths that have been hiding in her subconscious and affecting her life. Memory and photography serve as a fitting parallel to one another, as Jane’s traumatic past and the haunting nature of her photography intertwine. As she recovers, she experiences life through her camera, capturing and recovering images and memories.
Despite the relatively small cast, the characters’ relationships feel underdeveloped, particularly the new relationship between Jane and her uncle. The strength of Jane’s relationships with her uncle and psychiatrist, in particular, are absolutely essential to the impact of the end of the film, yet remain largely unexplored. When the truth of Jane’s relationship to her psychiatrist and uncle are revealed, the revelation makes little impact; throughout the film Jane’s relationship to these two, while ambiguous by necessity, goes entirely unestablished.
Gass-Donnelly and Frizzell’s dialogue is poetic, and often beautiful, but can sometimes feel overly grandiose, (“The houses are like epitaphs; they’re glimpses into lives once lived.”) or cliché (a “Mom, you’re scaring me!” from Jane’s daughter comes surprisingly early on). The clumsiness and lack of subtlety of some of the the dialogue seems at odds in a film with such effective visual storytelling.
Fatal Frame: Beautifully shot, Lavender uses its outdoor settings to their best effect. Sweeping shots of plains and forest, and shots of Jane and her daughter in fields of tall vegetation create an ambiance of bittersweet isolation, beautiful but ominous. Bold stylistic choices are apparent early on – the first scene slowly zooms through frozen figures that explore a crime scene like a diorama. The same effect is repeated later, and is just as effective. Throughout, slow zooms are used expertly to create tension and a sense of claustrophobia.
The score is varied. In many scenes, usually the slower and more contemplative, there are string-heavy orchestral pieces, which are emotionally moving and effective. Sometimes, however, the soundtrack devolves into a dissonant, repetitive eerie sound more typical of horror, or the similarly cliché tinkling melodies of a child’s music box. In general, this is the issue the film faces throughout. For every scene that is visually brilliant and emotionally evocative, it seems twice any many scenes seem uninspired, that relies on horror tropes and instead of honest exploration of its characters. This film is trapped between what could be a compelling psychological thriller and a cliché horror film.
Shutter: There are aspects of the film that, in general, feel ill-conceived. Some choices are minor; when Jane wakes in the hospital after a car accident, she looks just as well-kept as she did in the previous scenes, makeup immaculate, hair lightly fussed. It’s a small decision that reminds one of the ever-beautiful final girls from so many horror films. Some are more thematic, and relate to this film’s lack of cohesion. The use of children in horror, for example, can be done successfully, showing a corruption of innocence or an eerie juxtaposition of predator and prey. In this case, however, a film that begins as a stylistic but toned down psychological thriller, the image of a young girl with tangled hair whispering or singing nursery rhymes in a hallway feels too campy to take seriously. Jane’s childhood and the way its traumas invade her adult life is compelling as a theme, and there was a way, perhaps, to incorporate these images effectively into the film. But in a film that in many scenes feels as though it’s going to delve into its main character’s psyche in a more intimate, sincere way, it feels like a shortcut that takes the place of true characterization.
This film, despite what seems to be an attempt to keep succinct with a short runtime, is most effective when it slows down, allows us to understand Jane’s struggle to recover her memories, the haunting nature of her past and the way it manifests in her photography. Perhaps time dedicated to exploring Jane and the people around her would have led to a more satisfying ending, and heightened the tension in the final sequences, which ultimately fell flat.
Overall: Lavender is visually striking but otherwise leans on clichés of the genre. Its premise could make for an interesting thriller that allows the audience to participate in an intimate, personal way in Jane’s journey to uncover the details of her past. Unfortunately Lavender is overly ambitious without the necessary follow-through. There is little commitment to the characters and their relationships, which could have grounded this movie in its protagonist’s psychological state, which is something this film sorely lacks.
Featured Image: Samuel Goldwyn Films