Freaks review: a thrilling science fiction film worth knowing nothing aboutSeptember 11, 2018
Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the Toronto International Film Festival.
One of the upsides of our wired world is that it’s easy to get information. Anyone with a smartphone who wants to know how to gap a spark plug, make 12 different kinds of quiche, avoid traffic on the way to a destination, or charge up a phone can readily find that information in seconds. But there are complementary downsides: personal information about us is similarly easy to find and exploit, and it can be hard to avoid accessing an endless wave of demoralizing news that in aggregate, makes the world look and feel worse than it is.
But there’s another small but real downside of too much information: it can be hard to go into any given piece of entertainment without knowing so much about it beforehand that the actual experience is a letdown. “Anticipation culture,” where fans hang eagerly on every new drip of new information about a movie or TV show or comic or book, is an outgrowth of marketing strategies that insist audiences are better served by thinking constantly about an upcoming release over the course of months than by walking into it fresh. But marketing is usually the enemy of actual experience: movie trailers are designed to make films look exciting, so they tend to give away a film’s most climactic moments.
A marketing campaign’s attempts to whet viewers’ appetites with set visits, “leaked” clips, gameplay process videos, prerelease interviews, and so on may mean those viewers feel like they’ve experienced — and often derided and dismissed — a new release long before it actually hits screens or stores. All of which is death to a thoroughly thrilling cinematic experience like Freaks, Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein’s new genre-bending feature film, which is the best mystery-box movie to come along since 10 Cloverfield Lane.
Freaks opens with a deceptively simple scenario that isn’t entirely what it seems, and continues to unfold into a series of surprises that seem designed to keep viewers guessing at every single stage of the game about what they’re seeing and what it means. The writer-directors aren’t out to deceive the audience or play coy with them — by the end, all the mysteries are thoroughly unraveled, in a series of increasingly intense and thrilling action sequences — but Lipovsky and Stein also get a great deal of narrative mileage out of simply not revealing too much too early. Most of the characters in this story are missing crucial information, and the audience gets to discover it along with them.
(Note: the teaser trailer below reveals nothing about the film’s story. But people who want to experience Freaks spoiler-free should be properly paranoid about eventual trailers.)
What’s the genre?
Science fiction? Surreal fantasy? Stephen King-style 1980s horror? It’s a little of all the above. Once the story fully unfolds, it’ll be pretty familiar to genre fans. It’s more a voyage of discovery than a radical reinvention of existing tropes.
What’s it about?
When the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, the official plot description was “In this genre-bending psychological sci-fi thriller, a bold girl discovers a bizarre, threatening, and mysterious new world beyond her front door after she escapes her father’s protective and paranoid control.” That’s true enough, but it doesn’t really get at the film’s tone, and why it’s a strange and exciting experience from the opening frames onward.
As the movie begins, seven-year-old Chloe (Lexy Kolker) is living with her father Henry (Emile Hirsch) in a huge, dilapidated house with the windows papered over and a long string of locks on the doors. Henry is obsessed with keeping Chloe inside — she’s apparently never set foot outside the door — and training her in an elaborate series of lies about her identity. They have a loving, charming relationship, and he’s clearly put a lot of thought into creating games to keep her entertained and engaged. But he also rambles about the people out to kill them, the people who will get Chloe if she ever pokes her nose past the threshold. “You’re not normal yet! You’ll die if you go outside!” he shouts at her at one point. Henry seems like a sweet and goofy dad most of the time, a bit of a clown who enjoys playing along with whatever amusement his daughter suggests. But he’s also paranoid and unpredictable, in ways that seem imminently dangerous.
Glimpses of news footage suggest a violent and disturbing world that clashes strongly with what Chloe sees when she does break the rules and looks out. Meanwhile, a snow cone vendor (Bruce Dern) keeps haunting the house, driving a brightly painted truck that plays chipper music. When Henry isn’t looking, the snow cone man sends Chloe little presents, and tries to lure her away.
That initial setup suggests something between Room, the family drama where a child (Jacob Tremblay) grows up from birth in the shed where a rapist is holding his mother captive, and Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos’ disturbing drama about a couple who consciously teach their adult children all sorts of bizarre and disturbing things while isolating them from the world.
But the image of Dern as a cheery ice cream salesman, grinning his cracked grin and hovering meaningfully around Chloe’s home, suggests something more like the capricious, murderous milkman from Stephen King’s Skeleton Crew short stories “Morning Deliveries” and “Big Wheels.” Henry’s increasingly paranoid and even abusive attempts to keep Chloe inside also recall the Bluebeard myth, the idea of the one forbidden door in the castle, and the seemingly generous, secretly murderous man guarding it. The initial setup feels particularly alarming because it so thoroughly mixes familiar elements with surreal touches, and a mundane father / daughter relationship with something out of a fairy tale.
What’s it really about?
To some degree, it’s about how abuse and trauma can warp people — in this case, everyone involved. Chloe loves Henry, but years of rules that only apply to her and not to other people have made her resentful and rebellious, and well before the first act ends, she’s in full meltdown mode against her father and his strictures. Henry has his own secrets that explain his behavior, whether or not they excuse it. Even that mysterious snow cone seller has a relevant past to process.
The directors have said they wanted to tap into current paranoia about immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and various other outsiders who become victims and targets when a dominant population becomes afraid. That particular metaphor feels fairly thin, though, and it certainly isn’t overtly political or up to the moment. In a Q&A session after the film’s Toronto International Film Festival premiere, Lipovsky and Stein said they wrote it before Trump’s election, and even worried at the time that their script would seem irrelevant and passé once his political campaign ended.
Beyond that, it’s a movie about coming of age. Once Chloe’s choices start putting events in motion, she has a lot of growing up to do very rapidly. Some of the ways she expresses her defiance are outright dangerous, and others are simply horrifying, first on an entirely mundane level, and then in ways that reach beyond normal drama. As the story turns ugly, Lipovsky and Stein don’t pull any punches about the amorality of children, who may see other people solely as barriers and problems, and may not have an adult conception of ethics.
Is it good?
Freaks is certainly going to be a different and somewhat sloppier experience the second time around than it is on a first viewing. It feels repetitive and stretched out at times, and some of the story choices seem more designed to whip up emotional drama than to forward the action. Some viewers are inevitably going to be annoyed with the characters, who all make spectacularly bad decisions along the way.
But the extremity of those decisions — the shocking extremes Freaks eventually goes to — are part of what makes Freaks daring and engaging. As familiar as some of its tropes are, they usually unfold in ways that make its characters seem much more justified and relatable — their motives are clear, and so is the backstory that led to the story’s opening scenario —without fully extending sympathy. This is, to some degree, a narrative about people making awful mistakes under awful circumstances. Some of them try to course-correct before it’s too late. Others defiantly double down. Both options wind up being narratively satisfying.
Where Freaks really excels is its structure, which allows for a steady flow of reveals, right up to the final moments. Even once the basic scenario becomes clear — sometimes via startling reveals the audience will absorb before the characters, and sometimes via tautly directed action — there’s still a lot about the world left to learn. And the ways the writer-directors buck genre conventions around Chloe in particular ramps up the tension simply because viewers can’t trust them to play the story as safe, sentimental, or predictable. In a world packed with information, it’s outright exciting to know so little about where a story is going, or how far it’s willing to go to get there.
What should it be rated?
There’s a fair amount of violence, and especially emotional trauma, but it’s not egregiously gory. PG-13 should suffice.
How can I actually watch it?
Freaks came to Toronto seeking a distribution deal, and Well Go USA instantly snapped it up for release in America, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Latin America. Expect it to hit screens in 2019.