VIFF 2021 Review: The Beta Test

Written by Anna Harrison


“Everybody still wants to be Harvey.”

This sentiment isn’t explicitly expressed in The Beta Test until the end of the film, but nevertheless makes itself felt from the get-go as we follow Hollywood agent Jordan Hines, who is inching ever closer to the end of his fraying rope as he struggles to maintain some semblance of control in his life, grasping for the days where his white male ego meant something more. As played by Jim Cummings, who co-wrote and directed The Beta Test alongside PJ McCabe, Jordan is a compulsively watchable snake, his manic smile never quite reaching his eyes, his laugh just a little too forced, all of these sociopathic tendencies underpinned by a real sense of anxiety and dread and the knowledge that Jordan is one moment away from unraveling completely and having a nervous breakdown. 

But he can still pretend with an unnerving ease, smiling at clients and offering his assistant networking help, giving a better performance than his actor clients. He pretends to like his job, pretends that he has power and control, pretends to be thoughtful and attentive to his fiancée, Caroline (Virginia Newcomb).

So when a mysterious letter in a purple envelope comes along inviting Jordan to a no-strings-attached sexual encounter at a hotel, Jordan goes, eager to finally get some sort of real thrill in his life. Jordan—blindfolded—has sex with this unknown woman—also blindfolded—and intercut with this are scenes of Jordan elsewhere plastering his fake smile on and saying various iterations of, “That’s exciting.” (“The audience for television is so much larger than independent film,” he says, in a none-too-subtle meta moment in a film littered with them; unsubtle, but not ineffective.) But in this hotel room, free from pretending, it actually is exciting for Jordan. 

And that’s it. No more letters, no more anything, just the lingering memory of brief few moments of bliss, and so Jordan becomes increasingly paranoid to the point of hallucinating, or at least mishearing innocent remarks from his assistant and snapping at her. Losing his grip on reality, Jordan confesses to his only friend, PJ (fellow writer and director PJ McCabe), and they begin to track down where the envelope came from.

From here, McCabe and Cummings weave together various disparate threads, some not given enough weight or thought to be as substantial as they ought to be, but all coming together to illustrate the rapid loss of control and identity occurring in Jordan’s life. Much of it comes together in a critique of the Internet that is simultaneously both too on-the-nose and not developed enough, largely tacked onto the end and stated rather than shown; luckily, anchored by such a strong performance by Cummings—by turns pitiful and repulsive, but always electrifying—The Beta Test never loses your attention.

Even if The Beta Test doesn’t quite reach the height of its lofty ambitions, it remains a gripping narrative and a searing indictment of Hollywood and its (our, really) warped masculinity. #MeToo didn’t end sexual assault, or adultery, or any of it, it just made people get more creative about hiding it, as The Beta Test shows. “I think the world’s about to become a fucking horrifying place,” Jordan says. “I think I just watched it happen.” But hasn’t it always been one? It’s just wrapped in a different package now.

The Beta Test Trailer

The Beta Test screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Watch Anna’s Interview with The Beta Test Producer Natalie Metzger.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Tribeca 2021 Review: Werewolves Within

Written by Anna Harrison


Video game adaptations are practically always hit-or-miss, and they tend to lean (very) heavily into the “miss” category (see: Super Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat, Warcraft, etc.); while Werewolves Within doesn’t entirely buck this trend, it certainly heads in the right direction, riding on the coattails of its actors’ charms and resulting in a horror-comedy that’s a bit light on both the horror and the comedy, but nevertheless proves an amiable diversion with plenty of fun moments to spare. It probably helps that its gaming namesake is more like the game of mafia you played as a teenager than an actual narrative, leaving director Josh Ruben and Mishan Wolff ample room to inject their own sensibilities.

They’re helped by a game cast, led by Sam Richardson of Veep as Finn, a park ranger assigned to the town of Beaverfield after an unfortunate incident at his last posting. Richardson radiates an infectious likability from the moment he appears on screen and repeatedly yells “BALLS” in his car to make himself manlier. Upon arriving in town, Finn quickly meets Jeanine (Catherine Curtin) and Cecily (Milana Vayntrub of the AT&T commercials, proving here that she should be destined for greater things), the owner of the town bed and breakfast and the town’s mailperson, respectively. Cecily and Finn strike off to deliver a package to loner Emerson Flint (Glenn Fleshler), and go about meeting the various townspeople: there’s environmentalist Dr. Ellis (Rebecca Henderson), here to protest the pipeline proposed by corporate bigwig Sam Parker (Wayne Duvall); Marcus and Gwen (George Basil and Sarah Burns), a married couple who constantly insult one another as they run the town’s auto repair shop; other couple Trish and Pete (Michaela Watkins and Michael Chernus), who staunchly support the pipeline so Trish can get money to open a craft shop; and other other couple Devon and Joaquim (Cheyenne Jackson and Harvey Guillén, aka Guillermo from What We Do in the Shadows)—and yes, it’s Joaquim with an “m,” as he’s quick to remind us. 

Predictably, there’s a snowstorm and everyone gets stuck at Jeanine’s bed and breakfast after the power gets knocked out. Everything seems to be (mostly) fine until Finn stumbles upon the body of Jeanine’s missing husband, rumored to have escaped to Belize, and then the paranoia and whispers of lycanthropy set in.

Werewolves Within is never particularly scary, but it does utilize its claustrophobic setup to bounce some great comedic actors off each other with largely positive results. Richardson and Vayntrub in particular have excellent chemistry, but there is no weak link between the ensemble members, even if many of the gags go for broad topical humor rather than any sort of nuanced approach. Trish and Pete are the gun-toting, pro-pipeline, pro-America-but-in-a-very-annoying-and-aggressive-way conservative caricatures, Devon and Joaquim are the well-to-do gay yogi couple who correct your use of the phrase “Mexican standoff” and virtue signal constantly while doing very little in actuality. Like I said, not that nuanced, but fun enough for the most part (though there are certainly some jokes that fall flat regardless of political inclination). The cast by and large makes up for the flaws in the script, ensuring that the film retains a certain level of charm even when the script falters.

The final act, while not particularly surprising, features an intriguing dismantling of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, taking on casual misogyny in a fresh and inventive way—had the film spent more time with this idea, it might have soared; even undercooked, this idea was given more weight than any of the largely superficial jokes that came before, showing a glimpse of what could have been if the script handled its topics with just a little more care and subtlety. Still, even if Werewolves Within does not reach its full potential, the movie proves that not all video game adaptations are cursed.

Werewolves Within Trailer

Werewolves Within streamed as part of the Tribeca 2021 Film Festival thru Tribeca at Home. Release Date TBA.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Tribeca 2021 Film Festival Review: Enjoy

Written by Anna Harrison


Saul Abraham’s short film Enjoy finds its protagonist Michael (Himesh Patel) unable to enjoy just about anything. A struggling musician also struggling with the deepest throes of depression, Michael drifts aimlessly around his world, being acted upon by others but never acting himself; he can’t even ask his wife, Katie (Maddy Hill), how her day was. His world is blue in every sense of the word, director of photography Tasha Back and production designer Eve Shillingford draping a sense of melancholy throughout the film through use of a cool color palette so that Michael’s exterior world reflects his interior; the result is a sadly beautiful short that easily conveys Michael’s depression without ever naming it.

While trying to pursue music, Michael begins a side gig as a tutor in order to make ends meet. Through this, he meets Archie (Tom Sweet), a foul-mouthed teenager who needles Michael about his lackluster music career. Despite Archie’s abrasive nature, Michael begins to see parallels between the two and, through his sessions with Archie, uncovers the deep sadness that anchors Archie’s anger. (There is a great scene where Archie and Michael recreate Loki’s speech in The Avengers about how “it’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation,” and though it elicits a good chuckle, there’s a much darker idea there of a teen whose life has spun out of control wanting to relinquish any choices so he can avoid pain—or, alternatively, wants to control others so he won’t get hurt again.)

Enjoy isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s an enjoyable short that deals with depression in a very gentle way. Patel and Sweet both give solid performances, making an impact even with a short amount of screentime (around 18 minutes), alternatingly funny and heartbreaking. There is no magic cure for Michael or Archie, as there isn’t for anyone in the world; the color palette doesn’t suddenly change, and Archie doesn’t become a star student overnight, but there remains a deep humanity in the characters that gives a flicker of hope. Though Michael may not be able to enjoy anything, viewers can certainly enjoy Enjoy.

Enjoy Trailer

You can read Anna’s interview with Enjoy director Saul Abraham here and see more of her work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Tribeca 2021 Film Festival Interview: Director Saul Abraham Talks Short “Enjoy”

Interview by Anna Harrison

When did you first get the idea for this film? How long did the process from development to distribution take?

It is based on writer Callum Cameron’s personal experiences as a home tutor. He sent it to me a couple of years ago and I knew I wanted to be involved in the project straight away and luckily he agreed to develop it with me. I was struck by how delicately he handled feelings of misery, guilt, shame and worry whilst still making something warm, hopeful and funny. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at times and felt connected to Michael, as well as seeing a younger version of myself in Archie.

Were there any major script changes from conception to end?

As always, the script took many twists and turns in the development process but the original through line that Callum created was so strong that the root of it always remained consistent.

How collaborative was the process, i.e., did you get much say in the script, or was it mostly finalized by the time you were brought on board?

The development process was really collaborative but so was the rest of the process. Callum was fully in the trenches with me every step of the way on this. The story is very personal to him so it made sense for him to be part of everything and I loved that collaboration.

In that same vein, I really loved the color palette and production design; how much input did you have in that?

Glad you picked up on that! Yes, Tasha Back (director of photography), Eve Shillingford (production designer), and I put a lot of thought into palette and tone in each scene. We played with cold, blue tones at the lido and in Archie’s house to show the loneliness and isolation in those two places. Archie’s house in particular had to feel like a nice family house that had been abandoned and left cold by the break up of a family. The lido was to show Michael’s general mood—those scenes feeling almost dreamlike. Then at Michael and Katie’s flat we darkened everything down, making it feel oppressive and claustrophobic showing how boxed in Michael felt by not being able to communicate with Katie.

What was the editing process like? Did anything get left on the cutting room floor?

We were pretty specific with the script and what we shot so actually very little was cut out. But I did cut it myself so maybe I was too precious? Who knows!?

In one of the scenes, Michael and Archie reenact a scene from The Avengers (which was great) where Loki monologues that “it’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation” and we will only be happy when we have no choices. What made you decide on that scene in particular? How does it resonate in a film about depression

That was all Callum and his writing. I love that moment. I think he would agree to leave it all up to interpretation!

Tom Sweet, who played Archie, gave a great performance. How do you change your directing approach when working with younger actors, if you change it at all?

Tom Sweet blew us all away—perfectly balancing the spoilt brat element of the character whilst also getting us to feel for him. Such an intelligent actor for someone so young; it was a joy to work with him. I have lots of techniques for working with child actors and making them feel more comfortable, but to be completely honest they weren’t needed with Tom as he took it all in his stride. What impressed me so much was how well he listened to the other actors. Often with child actors they have learnt their lines and rehearsed a set way of delivering them and it’s hard to break them out of that. But Tom reacted to subtle changes made by Himesh [Patel] and Sara [Stewart] from take to take and was always present in the scene. He also took on direction fantastically.

One thing I really liked about the film was the ending—there wasn’t some big moment where Michael was “cured,” which can often happen in movies about mental illness. Could you elaborate a bit on the ending and its ambiguity?

Callum and I always wanted the film to have an ambiguous ending mainly because that’s our experience of our own mental health. It’s complex and never really has an ‘I am cured’ moment. Sometimes you have days, weeks, months or even years where you feel like you have turned a corner but then suddenly it changes. I feel like that is something we should talk about more with regards to mental health and that is looking at ways we need to monitor and look after ourselves in the ups and downs rather than looking for a complete solution, which to be honest doesn’t exist. Or maybe I haven’t found it yet? Having said that, although the ending is ambiguous I hope it’s still hopeful.

Do you have a favorite film you’ve watched at Tribeca so far? (Or just this year in general!)

I haven’t seen any yet but I just got my sent all the films and I can’t wait to watch. Check back with me in a week!

Enjoy played at the Tribeca 2021 Film Festival.

You can read Anna’s review of Enjoy here and see more of her work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Review: Nine Days

Written by Anna Harrison


Nine Days has a premise that could have very easily tipped towards the saccharine, spouting platitudes about the meaning of life with obnoxious heavy-handedness. Luckily, director Edson Oda and his creative team decided instead to make a quieter sort of film, one that showcases the strengths and uniqueness of the medium while rising on the backs of its talented ensemble cast to rise to its lofty ambitions, making this high-concept film feel personal and grounded.

Will (Winston Duke) has a bit of an odd job. Living in what seems like the middle of nowhere in a cozy, small home, Will spends his days watching old-fashioned TVs, but instead of playing the news or Netflix, these play out real human lives through a first-person POV camera. Will interacts with almost no one except his friend Kyo (Benedict Wong), instead investing his energy into watching the people-cameras on screen. When his favorite, violinist Amanda (Lisa Starrett), appears to commit suicide by car crash, Will is tasked with picking a new soul to experience life on earth and fill the vacancy. As he puts it, half-wistful, half-regretful, “You are being considered for the amazing opportunity that is life.”

However, Amanda’s death has sent Will into a tailspin. He feels betrayed that a soul he picked for life would throw it away so easily, and begins to obsessively search through his recorded tapes to prove that her death was an accident—some of this denial, we slowly learn, may have come from the fact that Will himself was once alive, and saw himself reflected in Amanda, perhaps even in their manners of death.

So Will searches for a new soul that is tough enough to withstand life so he won’t have to watch something like that happen again. Candidates include Kane (Bill Skarsgård), Alexander (Tony Hale), Maria (Arianna Ortiz), Mike (David Rysdahl), and lastly Emma (Zazie Beetz). Each ensemble member imbues their hopeful soul with life and vigor as Will has them answer questions and watch his TVs to discover what they might be in for. But after nine days, only one soul can be born. The others have to fade out of existence, though as Will whittles down his flock, he tries to recreate a specific moment before they go—a day on the beach, a ride on a bike—revealing a glimpse of the soft man underneath his pencil-pushing, brusque exterior. 

Will finds himself both fascinated by and frustrated with Emma, whose constant questioning and enthusiasm remind Will of his own humanity he has tried to bury under the surface. Beetz is magnetic, though some of her impertinent questions drift a little too far towards Hallmark territory and Emma dips her toe into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl waters. Still, both Duke and Beetz are so game that it becomes hard to take your eyes off of them. The supporting cast, too, delivers uniformly superb performances, most especially Tony Hale, whose laidback Alexander provides the most comedy in the film, though he is not afraid to let loose in the more dramatic scenes. But it’s really Winston Duke’s movie, and he owns it. (He also served as an executive producer.)

By taking a small-scale approach to this big-ideas film, Oda by and large keeps Nine Days from waxing too philosophical. Aside from a Walt Whitman poem towards the end, there are no big speeches on the Meaning of Life, which conversely makes the film much more effective at conveying its message (not to cast aspersion on the Whitman poem; it goes big, but hits all the right beats), though it leaves things open-ended enough to where the audience can graft on their own philosophical ideas. The film looks lovely, too, despite being confined largely to Will’s small house, and the music from Antonio Pinto plucks on all the right heartstrings. 

Nine Days is proof of the magic that can happen when the right aspect coalesce on a movie screen: a book would deny us the powerful human performances, a play would relegate the gorgeous views to our head, but in film, all these aspects can come together as one, demonstrating the unequivocal power of cinema. 

Nine Days Trailer

Nine Days played at the 2021 Atlanta Film Festival. Theatrical Wide Release is scheduled for August 6th.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Tribeca 2021 Film Festival Review: Last Film Show

Written by Anna Harrison


Pan Nalin’s Last Film Show opens with a thank you to people the director has likely never met: the Lumière brothers, Eadweard Muybridge, David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, and Andrei Tarkovsky. Some of these names are familiar to the public at large, some less so, but all giants in the world of cinema, and Nalin’s thanks to them as the film opens sets the tone of love and reverence on display throughout Last Film Show, a beautifully shot ode to filmmaking and storytelling, told with care that practically bleeds through the screen (the irony that I watched this on my computer screen and not in a theater with a projector is not lost on me, don’t worry).

It’s hard, even knowing little about Nalin himself, not to view this film as an autobiography of sorts, but then again it could be an autobiography of sorts for anyone who has ever stared transfixed at a movie and wondered at what they were seeing. Last Film Show follows nine-year-old Samay (Bhavin Rabari), who, like so many of us before him, falls in love with the movies. Even if we can’t relate to his specific circumstances, we relate to the feeling, to the transcendence Samay feels as he holds his hand up to the projector light and watches the beams dance through his fingers. Samay’s father (Dipen Raval) disapproves, but Samay begins to sneak away from school and spend his afternoons with the Galaxy Cinema’s projectionist, Fazal (Bhavesh Shrimali), giving Fazal food in exchange for knowledge and free movies. (The love for food is also quite evident in the film; movies tell stories one way, and food another.)

Samay becomes fascinated by the inner workings of the projector: the lights, the reels, the reflections. He finds broken bottles with colored glass and holds them up to his eyes, the world now filtered through blue, or red, or green. He uses a mirror to create light, watching it refract and bounce. “I want to become movies,” he says. Eventually, Samay ropes his friends into helping him build his own projector, using the knowledge that Fazal taught him to bring movie magic to his friends. Cinematographer Swapnil S. Sonawane makes all these scenes as beautiful as possible, and fills them with homages to other movies, most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey. The monolith in Kubrick’s film awakens our ancestors’ consciousness; here, a movie does the same to Samay.

But Samay’s world comes tumbling down with the rise of digital photography, replacing his beloved film reels. There is a real melancholy here, the colors becoming stark and cold as the projector in Galaxy Cinema gets hauled away, replaced by a computer and a room with bleak white walls. The closeness that Samay felt holding the film in his hands, cutting it, winding it through the projector—it all fades. Last Film Show is all about transitions: Galaxy Cinema goes digital and Fazal loses his job, the train that runs through Samay’s town becomes electric and the town loses its train stop and thus Samay’s father loses his job, Samay goes from child to if not adult, then at least a child with his eyes opened to the uglier side of the world.

The gentle awe with which this film is imbued wanes somewhat in the third act, becoming replaced with slightly overwrought melodrama, and the pace quickens too rapidly from the steadiness of before. Yet Nalin crafts Last Film Show with such care and gentleness that even then you can’t help but feel like a kid again, watching a movie for the first time, or perhaps even those first theatergoers who believed the Lumière brothers’ train was going to come out of the screen and into their seats. It’s nostalgic, but not stuck in the past, as the ending voiceover reminds us: the film that Samay watched burn gets turned into bangles, and so the stories of Spielberg, of Ozu, of Eisenstein all live on, even as their medium changes. 

Maxim Gorky, upon seeing his first film—that famous train from the Lumières—cried that cinema was “the Kingdom of Shadows,” forever resting on the edge between real and unreal; Fazal in Last Film Show explains that “movies were invented to con people.” Yet even if the films themselves are lies, what we feel from them are undoubtedly, achingly true, and Nalin lets Last Film Show reminds us of that.

Last Film Show Trailer

Last Film Show was screened as part of the Tribeca 2021 Film Festival.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Tribeca 2021 Film Festival Review: Wu Hai

Written by Anna Harrison


Yang Hua (Huang Xuan) has not been having a very good day, or week, or year in Zhao Ziyang’s Wu Hai. Hua has debtors tailing him at every corner after a failed investment into a dinosaur theme park, and his investment into his friend Luo Yu’s (Wang Shaohua) desert resort has so far coughed up nothing except empty promises. His wife, Miao Wei (Yang Zishan), has reached the end of her rope, and a surprise pregnancy doesn’t help things. In Wu Hai, money is truly the root of all evil; the characters may have flaws to begin with, but the debts they incur mercilessly bring out these flaws until the characters inflict misery both on themselves and everyone around them.

Thankfully, all this misery business does not make Wu Hai too dour to watch, due in large part to Huang Xuan’s performance. Given such a bleak script, it would have been easy for Huang to slip into melodrama, but instead he opts for a subtler approach; Hua fights to keep his encroaching sense of anguish clamped down, and so when he lets it out it becomes all the more powerful for the restraint shown before. The other actors turn in fine performances as well, but their characters largely stay on the sidelines, existing only to give Hua more grief and heartache.

Grief and heartache, however, are not enough to capture an audience, and Wu Hai often lags in spots and, despite Hua’s impending downfall, seems to lack much momentum. There are flurries of activity scattered throughout the film, such as a powerfully acted argument between Hua and his wife, but the lulls in between threaten to derail the film. More interesting parts of the film are left largely undercooked: the class insecurity that contributes to Hua’s crumbling mental state, obsession with status, the treatment and exploitation of women in order to climb the rungs of society. For a deliberately slow film that tries to be thoughtful in its handling of plot, these deeper aspects getting left behind is doubly frustrating.

Luckily, cinematographer Matthias Delvaux keeps the film looking good even as viewers’ interest in the plot might wane. Delvaux’s use of long takes builds tension in the film; instead of cutting rapidly to replicate a feeling of anxiety, he lets us linger as it slowly builds. This also allows the actors to play off each other without interruption, and we can watch Hua’s face run through the gamut of emotions all within a single take. One particularly evocative shot involves Hua climbing into the mouth of a T. rex statue, swallowed whole by capitalism, in the belly of the beast.

Wu Hai has enough engaging elements to elevate itself—namely, Huang’s performance and Delvaux’s cinematography—but those can only do so much. Had the script taken time to examine its components more in depth, Wu Hai could have been a searing commentary on China’s current economic system; as is, Wu Hai stands on the cusp of greatness but can never go over the edge. (In that, it might be a little like its protagonist.)

Wu Hai Trailer

Wu Hai played as part of the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. Release Date TBA.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

AFI Docs 2021 Review: Naomi Osaka: Episode 1

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde


Naomi Osaka is a phenom! I have been invested in Naomi’s story since her victory over Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open final. This first episode of a three part documentary series, directed by Garrett Bradley, is even more important after Naomi’s recent forced withdrawal from the Roland Garros after she released a pre-tournament statement saying she would not agree to post-match interviews because it was detrimental to her mental health. Subsequently, she has also withdrawn from Wimbledon so she can take time to focus on herself. However she still plans to represent her native Japan in the Tokyo 2020 summer Olympics. These decisions made me admire Naomi even more. 

In this first episode, we are able to see the growth of a young woman and athlete that is coming into her own both on and off the court. As Naomi puts it she is still trying to figure stuff out and keep adjusting to whatever life throws at her. This awareness is very clear when Naomi states that the amount of attention she receives is ridiculous. “This is the one aspect no one prepares you for.”, she says. Naomi finds this idolatry around her is really weird. 

Episode one also gives insight into Naomi outside off the court. We see her adjusting to living by herself, in California, after purchasing her first home. Her close relationship with her father, her first coach, her mom, and sister which will hopefully be explored more in subsequent episodes.

We also see the work Naomi put in to remain on top as she returned to defend her title among spectators like Kobe Bryant, a mentor which she would later form a strong bond with, Colin Kaepernick, and her musician boyfriend Cordae. Just as important, this episode starts to give us insight into Osaka’s relationship with the press and the fan fair that surrounds her. It is really incredible that through it all Naomi remains humble as she starts to understand when she should push her limits. Naomi also starts to realize what she means for young girls around the world and how challenging life in the limelight can really be. I recommend this first episode and am excited to uncover more about Osaka’s journey and offer a complete detailed write up once all 3 episodes are out. 


The Naomi Osaka Limited Docu-Series will begin streaming on Netflix on July 13th.

Tribeca 2021 Film Festival Review: No Man of God

Written by Anna Harrison


No Man of God director Amber Sealey recently posted on Instagram a lengthy email from director Joe Berlinger, in which he accused her of taking aim at his own films about Ted Bundy—Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile with Zac Efron, and the documentary Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes—in a Refinery29 interview, where Sealey stated, “I don’t personally believe that any of the movies that have already been made up until now have really shown the real Bundy… They always glorify him.” 

Now, leaving aside the moral quandary that arises from this rather immature spat, the question arises: Can there ever exist a movie about Bundy without glorification? There is always a certain voyeuristic fascination with figures like him, even as we are repulsed by their actions; America has a constant need for celebrity, and killers, especially charismatic men like Bundy and Charles Manson, fill those shoes with ease. François Truffaut famously claimed that “There is no such thing as an anti-war film”; can there exist a movie about a figure like Ted Bundy that doesn’t glorify him?

It’s a hard thing to avoid, especially when Bundy as played by Luke Kirby oozes a snakelike charm throughout No Man of God, even at his most despicable. You can’t help but be fascinated by him, by the cocked eyebrows and tilted head, something that FBI profiler Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood, who needs to drop his skincare routine as soon as possible) comes to find after he volunteers to interview Bundy in an effort to discover what makes serial killers tick. “Dear Mr. Bundy,” Hagmaier writes before tossing the paper. He eventually settles on, “Dear T.,” and so correspondence begins. Eventually, correspondence begins, and Hagmaier makes various trips down to Florida over the course of several years while Bundy waits in limbo, still denying his crimes. 

The two make an odd couple: Bundy, slippery and dangerous, and Hagmaier, straightforward and devout. But they are fascinated by each other, and by the knowledge that, had things only been a little different, their places could have been switched: Bundy as the agent, Hagmaier as the killer. An obsession with “normal” plagues them both; could normal people do what they do? Are normal people capable of what Bundy did, or are both Bundy and Hagmaier unnatural? Together, Wood and Kirby form an infinitely watchable duo, simultaneously bouncing off of and melding into each other. They discuss everything from elementary school hijinks to pornography, getting closer and closer as they circle each other, probing into each other’s psyche. Does Bundy truly view Hagmaier as a friend, or is he just manipulating him?

However, the excellent performances make the shortcomings of the film that much more frustrating. Writer C. Robert Cargill of Doctor Strange, under the pen name Kit Lesser, carefully creates the parallels between Hagmaier and Bundy, but fails to elaborate on them past the surface level; it’s hard not to think about others that have done it better, especially in certain adaptations about a cannibal with a suspicious-sounding name. The real Hagmaier served as an executive producer for No Man of God, and part of me wonders if that hamstrung the film and Cargill had to step back from anything too damning lest he paint Hagmaier in a negative light. What could have been engrossing psychological drama ends up being rather unremarkable material elevated by the two leads at its center. 

The best moments come towards the end, when the media frenzy reaches a high around Bundy and he begins, for the first time, to fear his own death. Kirby never lets the viewer forget Bundy’s nature, his cold misogyny and violence, but by degrees lets in a real vulnerability as he reckons with his impending doom. It’s a tightrope act that Kirby walks with apparent ease. Wood shines too as Bundy finally lays bare the nature of his crimes and the depths to which he sank to Hagmaier, an excellently edited sequence cutting between the two so quickly it becomes hard to tell who’s who, the closest the film gets to committing to the merging of Hagmaier and Bundy. 

Does Sealey succeed in making a film that doesn’t glorify Bundy? It’s hard to say; perhaps its mere existence glorifies him. Though Sealey attempts to try a new approach with Bundy, No Man of God ultimately retreads well-worn ground, and the efforts to separate itself from the crowd don’t go far enough. The seeds of a gripping character-driven psychological thriller are all planted, but despite Wood and Kirby’s best efforts, they fail to produce anything more than sprouts.

No Man of God is currently streaming as part of the Tribeca 2021 Film Festival thru Tribeca at Home(available only in the USA). No Man of God is currently scheduled for Theatrical Release on August 27th.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Review: Wet House

Written by Anna Harrison


75, really, is an arbitrary number, plucked from thin air to try and represent the thoughts swirling around my head, and in this case, it feels disingenuous. To give Wet House a numerical score is to strip it of all its compassion and makes me feel as if I am ranking the human lives that Wet House showcases, but there’s that little 75 in the corner anyway, though it’s practically meaningless.

Wet House follows the lives of several men in Milwaukee who live in wet houses, facilities where chronic alcoholics are given a room, a monthly stipend, and an observed place in which to drink. So you could call those who work in these wet houses professional enablers, but that would be an oversimplification: the wet houses exist to keep alcoholics off the streets and out of shelters, hospitals, etc., saving taxpayer money and attempting to provide the safest place possible for these men while not driving them away or overwhelming them by forcing sobriety. Some of the employees of these wet houses, such as a woman named Shearise, were alcoholics themselves or family members of alcoholics, and so understand the position these men are in.

Director Benjamin May employs a direct cinema style in Wet House: he lets the camera simply observe, never commenting himself but letting us decide. It creates a judgment-free film, one that refuses to condemn its subjects. And, indeed, it’s hard to condemn them: these men are tragic figures above all else, people with strong relationships, hopes, and dreams—Dan had an offer to play hockey at Harvard before an injury drove him to drink, Petie used to have his beading displayed at an art museum—but trapped by a disease they have lost control of. That’s another triumph of Wet House—it addresses alcoholism truly as a disease, not something that everyone can just buckle down and get rid of if they put in the work. May shows us men that we pity, but never lets us forget that they are men. 

Even disregarding its subjects, Wet House proves compelling on a technical level. May and directors of photography Daniel Levin and Giovanni Autran employ some absolutely gorgeous shots, often accompanied by a jazz score from Jeremy Ylvisaker and the band Fat Kid Wednesdays. Milwaukee becomes transformed into a winter wonderland, her citizens framed against a backdrop of snow.

It would be easy to cut a film that just shows these people at their lowest, taking cheap shots to generate a perverse kind of interest, but May avoids that (though he doesn’t shy away from showing the darker sides of his subjects’ lives), instead opting to show the everyday existence of these men, good and bad, thereby allowing his audience to connect with them more personally. Never once does he look down on any of the wet house residents, and so neither can his audience; we can’t “otherize” them in an attempt to disengage, and therein lies Wet House’s power: empathy.

Wet House played at the Atlanta Film Festival.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.