As this movie ended, I was much more mellow about it. There are too many characters that needed paring back and I didn’t think that the central horror mechanic really worked, but I found the movie entertaining enough on its own.
I kept thinking about that mechanic, though, and I steadily grew in my appreciation for the film.
A struggling gallery employee lives in the same building as an old man who dies in the hallway. Inside his apartment are a thousand paintings he created over several decades. The artist’s instructions were to destroy the paintings upon his death, but the woman, Josephina, takes them all and works with her employer to sell them to the art-loving world.
We steadily learn some of the artist’s history, but only just enough. He was drafted in World War II, spent time in a mental hospital, survived a house fire that killed his mother and sister, but not his father. He even killed his father. And that’s about all we learn from straight dialogue, but there was one element that I was largely ignoring, the art itself.
So, before I dig into that, let me continue with the story a bit. The movie transitions from a light satire of the modern art world into a horror movie, and falters a bit because of the aforementioned plethora of characters. Dan Gilroy, writer and director, obviously loved the bevy of characters he created and didn’t want to cut them back. I can’t really blame him because there isn’t a character I found pointless in the bunch. From John Malkovich’s stymied artist Piers to the assistant Coco who ends up finding almost every dead body in the movie as she goes from job to job, there really isn’t a weak character in the bunch. However, it creates a cloud of confusion in the middle section as we spend so much time with them instead of on the horror that things just get a bit muddled.
The horror itself is that the artist’s work is possessed with his soul, but the paintings themselves don’t do any of the killing, it’s the art around it that does it. That mechanic felt out of step with the theme of the film, which is about imbuing the art with the soul of the creator. However, as I thought of the idea after the movie was over, I remembered some of the paintings we saw and drew so much attention from the characters. There are many paintings of a boy and a girl, but there’s one in particular that shows three figures, a boy, a girl, and an larger male figure. The boy is protecting the girl, who’s screaming, and the boy is striking out against the father. Suddenly, the point of the horror mechanic became blindingly obvious. I was listening to the artist, but not figuring him out myself.
That picture, reproduced above, shows the artist as a boy protecting a weaker person from the stronger. The artist’s soul isn’t out to protect itself in the form of the paintings (it doesn’t need it since everyone loves the work), but it’s out to protect its younger siblings. Everyone who dies has been dismissive against the art that kills them in some way. The most prominent example is in the trailer. Toni Collette puts her arm in a giant sphere which eats the arm and lets her bleed out. When she first saw it in the beginning of the movie, she didn’t like it and insulted it. So, the artist’s spirit allowed the sphere to defend itself against its detractor.
The art critics get it good and hard.
When I figured this out, my appreciation of the movie jumped. I went from thinking it was pretty good to really good. There are still too many characters muddling things especially in the middle section, but the horror mechanic is smart and really well thought out. I kind of loved it.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 3.5/4