Writer/director Matthew Goodhue’s WOE premieres on DVD and Digital June 15 from Gravitas Ventures and Kamikaze Dogfight.
Reviewed by Stacey Yvonne: It’s no surprise that Matthew Goodhue got his start in documentaries. His ability to allow the universal truths of life to set the mood for his scenes shines clearly in his debut feature, Woe. Starring Jessie Rabideau (Modern Love) and Adam Halferty (Virgil), the movie paints a picture of grief and the demons that haunt us.
To apply the term horror to this film is to fib a little. Sure, the archetypes are there; creepy grave in sprawling bear trapped backyards, a looming creature that pops up unannounced, disconnected red eyes that pierce the soul, but at the heart of Woe is a story about love, loss, mental wellness and family trauma.
We open on Charlie (Halferty) digging a shallow grave as he carries a small bundle in a black trash bag. He holds the irregularly shaped item to him, sadness and longing evident on his face. It appears that he is clearly burying his dead dog, perhaps the former companion of his father. The loss is very important to Charlie, but we soon learn that what we see, we may not have actually seen. There’s more than two sides to this story.
The phone inside of the house is ringing nonstop and when the answering machine kicks in, the voice states it’s “Tom Dennistoun of Dennistoun Designs”. We soon learn that poor Tom was the patriarch of the family and has passed away and the house his son Charlie is working on belonged to him. Soon, Charlie’s sister Betty (Rabideau) and her fiance Benjamin (Ryan Kattner) arrive to take Charlie to what appears to be a yearly memorial. We learn that not only has their father died the previous year, but also his brother, their uncle just two months later.
Charlie delays going to the memorial as he takes time to do renovations and repairs to the old house. He works diligently, but it seems as though the work is never done. We see him performing many tasks almost mindlessly as he plugs in earbuds and tunes out the world around him. Part of that world are a set of haunting phone calls from his supposedly dead Uncle Paul. There’s an ominous message saying to return the calls lest what happened to Charlie’s dad would happen to him.
Add to that a well-meaning elderly neighbor who is trying to help Charlie move forward (ala some very timely advice from Marie Kondo), and a looming presence that serves to hold Charlie back and you have the recipe for a spooky thriller. However it is one that requires active viewing.
The film itself is beautifully told, though mostly in metaphor. We have the past – Charlie making endless repairs on the house, being juxtaposed with promise of the future where we see Betty and Benjamin planning their wedding. Charlie’s presence at the old house and never ending set of chores proves as a deterrent for Betty to evolve past her grief. Her brother annoys her and frustrates her, Benjamin is the one who makes sure their connection is constant. But you can also tell she loves him, she’s just hurting. Perhaps he resembles a bit too much of their dad without actually being their dad. These little contemplations are not blatantly laid out, but fodder does give room for thought. A lot of what is happening onscreen is made to give space to the viewer to fill in the puzzle.
Little things allude to what is happening, but Woe’s pace is that of “a day in the life”. There are prolonged shots on blank expressions; the kind of silences that can only be invoked with great loss. It’s pondering and meandering. You can immediately see the influence of a film like Hereditary where family trauma showcases two siblings who struggle to relate to or even face one another.
During a moment of missed communication and disagreement, the siblings regard each other coldly. They trade looks of contemplation, rage and the annoyance of understanding. They clearly understand where the other is coming from and seem to be jealous of the selfishness on display by the other. These contradictory emotions flow throughout the film. It’s very well done and showcases what a film like Woe does best – visualize human emotion. In fact, the one misstep of this film in my opinion was making the demon-like presence be tangible or so fully formed. Something like this really needed a spectre instead of a live representation.
It’s a bit more confusing than necessary and it’s not needed to amp up the film. The physical attributes of the demon are confounding because it lacks reference and no clear boundaries are set. When it’s hard to parse out the rules, it’s even more difficult to understand when they’ve been broken. The form of the demon is not one we’re used to and their motives are unclear.
There are certainly horror elements to this film, but the horror is not where the real fear lies. It’s the everyday nature of living life after grief. It’s the monotony of the mundane and the lust for life that ends up being a driving force in the film. In fact, one of the most poignant and beautiful scenes is near the end with two characters in a car. No dialogue, just an expression of emotion.
Woe’s passage of time or rather, the experience of it proves to be unsettling in a satisfying way. Days pass that are merely hours; time becomes relative when the only truth seems to be that it’s running out.
Overall, Goodhue has created a thoughtful piece of thriller art in Woe. I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who was a fan of classic horror, but rather someone who is interested in a moody noir thriller and isn’t afraid to wave away some minor inconsistencies. The performances are strong even given that much of the cast are low-key character actors. Jessie Rabideau shows a great range, but it doesn’t kick in fully until near the end. Ryan Katthner’s Benjamin Hennessey helps alleviate the mood in a series of bumbling turns during his road trip from hell. The humor isn’t too much to take you out of the scene, but enough to give some breathing room before the next situation.
Starring Adam Halferty, Jessie Rabideau, Ryan Kattner and James Russo WOE is available on DVD and OnDemand, Tuesday, June 15th.