Overview: Reeling from a personal tragedy, a private detective sets up shop in an abandoned apartment to keep watch on a target, but begins to lose a grip on his mind. Artsploitation Films; 2015; Not Rated; 90 Minutes.
Obfuscation: As a film about a private detective and his subject of surveillance, Observance could not be better served by the disorienting and paranoid tone of its first two acts. Within a dingy, unlived apartment, Parker (Lindsay Farris) peers through newspaper-covered windows at Tenneal (Stephanie King). Their interactions with others – Tenneal with her seemingly abusive boyfriend and Parker with his brother-in-law and his boss (the latter of which he only speaks to via telephone)—provide the smallest snippets of information about who these people were, who they are, and why one has been hired to watch the other. When these clues veer toward the schizophrenic and/or paranormally-influenced, their respective confines begin to feel claustrophobic and menacing, even before we have any sense of who is a threat to whom.
Obstacles: The narrative perspective marries most loyally to Parker, and his implied heartbreak and his psychological damage move so synchronously in step that one has to credit sophomore Writer/Director Joseph Sims-Dennett with being a naturally intuitive filmmaker. Not since Aronofsky’s Black Swan have we seen trauma and its subsequent psychological disrepair lean so comfortably into one another. Parker’s hallucinations, hauntings, and flashbacks spill in with a reserved rhythm, more like a melted picture than a jigsaw puzzle, and the more distinct and alarming the imagery, the less interpretive clarity it offers.
Obstruction: And Observance is filled with plenty of jarring, potentially haunting imagery—from the bleeding empty eye sockets of a young boy, to the ever filling jar of dark liquid on the corner shelf, to the convulsive wave of thick black vomit spewing from Parker’s throat. It is, at the risk of cliché, the stuff of nightmares. But nightmares ungrounded by real life resonance typically only terrify in the moments just after waking. Where the first two acts steady the nail, the third act opts to swing with a mist rather than a hammer. If the film’s conclusion were to offer any sort of interpretative guidance, some implied structure that could be applied to the characters’ story in retrospect, these intensely troublesome images would perhaps be anchored in the viewer’s psyche with some emotional permanence (this is, after all, a story of personal concern rather than conceptual design), but, as it stands, the open-endedness of its non-conclusion—really, the third act is functionally another first act in its uncertainty—orphans everything that happened before, leaving top shelf horror imagery to be just that: shelved.
Overall: The atmosphere, visual craft, and wrenching performances in Observance make its virtual non-ending all the more frustrating.
Featured Image: Artsploitation Films