The Painful Delivery of ‘Still/Born’

by Warren Cantrell on February 8, 2018

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Minor Rock Fist Up]

A psychological thriller with a horror bent, Still/Born trots through familiar territory, yet mostly succeeds at making its own way through a well-worn genre landscape populated by superior fare. It’s a story about grief, depression, parenthood, and all the scary creatures that live under the bed and in the darkest corners of the closet. And while it mines story beats and themes from other sources, the particulars of its script and the boldness of its climax set it apart.

Director Brandon Christensen opens his movie with his lead, Mary (Christie Burke), giving birth to twins. Although the first child is born without complications, the second emerges stillborn. Once at home with her husband and child, Mary seems a bit untethered, yet puts on a brave face and tries to soldier on. Jack (Jesse Moss), Mary’s spouse, is doing and saying all the right things to try and support his wife and be there for her, yet their need to see him back at work to support the family puts Mary on something of an island.

All alone with her festering depression, Mary starts to see and hear things that lead her to believe that it isn’t just her and the baby in the house when Jack heads out each day. Lights flicker on and off, and the baby monitor picks up sounds that Mary can’t quite explain, leading the audience (and to a certain extent, Mary) to wonder if any of this is real, or merely the product of a traumatized, sleep-deprived new mom. As the days pass, the infant keeps falling victim to dangers that are very real, and whether the culprit is Mary or some resentful baby-hungry demon, something needs to be done to assure the child’s safety.

Still/Born has a few slick moves up its sleeve, and presents well as a professionally crafted horror/suspense thriller. The transitions from the mundane real world to the supernatural are effective, as is the performance by Burke, who must balance the competing roles of a mentally unstable individual vs. a traumatized and put-upon lady fending off monsters. Even as Still/Born moves into its third act, it isn’t quite clear whether Mary is full blown crazy, or the victim of a supernatural assault. Throwing a helpless baby into the mix raises the stakes for all of this, and makes sure the audience is invested in the drama from start to finish.

Still, there are problems. The Biblical symbolism of Still/Born is a bit muddled, as the baby’s name is Adam, which combined with a mother named Mary, merges the streams of two very distinct and separate Judeo-Christian narratives. A husband named Jack (short for John, an apostle) and a side-plot about a neighbor named Rachel (Rebecca Olson) only deepen this mystery. How things play out don’t resolve these questions, yet point to a script at least trying (albeit unsuccessfully) to draw out some deeper meaning from this postpartum infanticide fantasy.

What’s more, the long-haired, porcelain-faced demon-witches that pop up evoke The Ring, just as the security camera footage calls back to memories of Paranormal Activity. Christensen positions these moments in such a way that they feel homage-centric, yet they still seem to rely a little too much on the thunder called down by different makers. Even so, this might not be the sticking point that it is if Still/Born didn’t ape so many of the themes from 2014’s breakout hit, The Babadook…which it kinda does. Both Still/Born and Babadook tease the audience with a central question of whether the monster is real or a product of the lead’s imagination, and touch on how grief and the bonds of family intertwine. As a result, the sum of all these parts sometimes makes Still/Born feel like a greatest hits sampling of 21st century suspense/horror cinema.

That being said, Still/Born does enough with its main characters and plot particulars to distance itself from accusations of being a rip-off, and resolves its story with enough originality and boldness that it stands well enough on its own. Burke keeps the tension dialed up with her performance right up to her last scene, and Moss does fine work in a thankless straight-man role that doesn’t really have much to do. The always reliable Michael Ironside makes a couple of appearances as Mary’s therapist, and adds some stability to things, grounding the story a bit, just as Olson does as the frustratingly well-adjusted new mom neighbor, Rachel.

This is the feature debut for Christensen, and he does enough to make one wonder what the guy has in the pipeline. The direction is smooth, and the thriller beats are laid into the foundation of the picture with a knowing hand that speaks to a genuine handle on the material and genre as a whole. Issues with pacing aside (the second act drags, and the third is too rushed), it is a fine freshman effort, and shows room for real growth.

Opening tomorrow at the Screenland at Tapcade, Still/Born is just what you’d expect from an indie horror-thriller opening in February. It’s interesting, engaging, a little bit terrifying, and a lot bit suspenseful. A freshman effort with a few flaws, to be sure, Still/Born will keep audiences on the edge of their seats, despite the fact that many of them have seen something similar to this before.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.


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