Written and Directed by: Rupert Jones
Starring: Toby Jones, Anne Reid, and Sinead Matthews
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Murder is a matter of perspective.
I believe that Alfred Hitchcock himself would admire the playfulness behind Kaleidoscope, a claustrophobic little thriller that seemingly offers up a riff on one of the Master’s most notorious works before zagging into another direction. The presence of a finicky, scrupulous middle-aged man and his overbearing mother point straight to Psycho, yet writer/director Rupert Jones winds up echoing the likes of Repulsion with this elusive, almost abstract debut. Either way, I suppose that makes it a very British horror film, and, true to its title, this is a kaleidoscopic homage to the horror tradition of its director’s homeland. Whether it works beyond the level of homage is debatable, but this is an otherwise well-crafted mood piece that’s content to dig into your brain without any regard for smoothing it back over.
From the outset, the film poses questions it’s never in much of a hurry to answer, opening in a dingy apartment, where Carl (Toby Jones) answers a knock at his apartment door, only to find nobody on the walkway outside. What he does discover, however, is the body of a dead girl in his bathroom. Horrified, he frantically thinks back to the night before, flashing the audience back to his date with Abby (Sinead Matthews), a husky-voiced girl he’s met on a matchmaker website. Because we know the date is doomed to end with Abby’s corpse slumped against Carl’s bathroom wall, an unbearable tension hovers over their interactions. We watch as the two probe each other for details, distrusting just about everything about Carl. Not that Abby is necessarily up front either—not when she keeps checking her phone’s cryptic texts and insists on getting Carl drunk, much to this displeasure. “It sends me off somewhere,” he protests, with Abby promising to “come get him” if it does.
Carl definitely goes somewhere during the course of the evening, though Jones is cagey about the details. Rather, he creates a sort of impressionist menace out of Carl’s dingy apartment as Abby uncovers evidence of his days as a convict, lending an immediate air of suspicion. And then there’s the dusty answering machine tucked away in the corner of the apartment: we watch as the phone rings, allowing the machine to pick up as Jones charges this seemingly innocuous event with an ominous threat. His camera slowly pushes in, allowing the audience to soak in the bizarre message left by an older woman who chides Carl before announcing that she’ll be in town soon. Before she can complete her suggestion that she drop by, she abruptly breaks off, immediately signaling troubled waters between her and Carl.
We soon learn that the woman is Carl’s mother, Aileen (Anne Reid), who arrives shortly after her son’s ill-fated date. Carl is understandably spooked by her presence and does everything he can to conceal the crime that’s unfolded in his apartment. Kaleidoscope nearly takes on the tenor of a wicked dark comedy in the aftermath of the murder, as Carl skulks around the apartment compound, shiftily avoiding interactions with both his mother, a chatty neighbor (Cecilia Noble), and, eventually, Abby’s abusive husband. There’s a shifty energy to the proceedings that leaves the audience somewhere between sympathizing with and condemning Carl as he sizes up trash cans and suitcases in an attempt to dispose of Abby’s remains. When a light flickers on during a scouting trek to the parking lot, it’s both startling and pleasing: you’re not sure whether or not you’re afraid for Carl or happy that he might be found out, a deviously playful turn of events that hints at the twisted, mixed-up nature of Kaleidoscope.
Given the title, it’s perhaps appropriate that Kaleidoscope comes into focus and yet doesn’t all at once. As Carl and his mother interact, it becomes clear that something has fractured their relationship: from the outset, Carl is unusually curt with Aileen, going so far at one point as to put her right back out on the street when she begs for a place to stay. Even though Carl obviously has practical reasons to refuse her—covering up a murder tends to do that, I suppose—there’s the sense that something even more disturbing in responsible for his behavior. Ditto for his decision to relent and allow her to stay: sure, maybe it’s just natural for a son to send his poor mother packing, but, in this case, probably not. The audience’s suspicions are confirmed—albeit abstractly—during Aileen’s increasingly intense visit, wherein Carl is sent deeper into his own broken psyche, forcing him to confront repressed trauma.
Again, the particulars are hazy: Carl is also visited by an unnerving cocktail of memories and hallucinations that paint an elusive, impressionist portrait of a man haunted by his childhood. The presence of a mysterious old man—presumably Carl’s father—hints at some turmoil, while his encounters with Aileen get just icky enough to imply some sort of abuse that continues to haunt him into middle-age. Jones is rightfully restrained in dealing with these developments, allowing them to play out as sordid implications without fully indulging their trashy potential. A scene where Carl blends his anxieties over his murder and his repressed trauma regarding his mother is masterfully unnerving and resists exploitation—let’s just say it involves a case of mistaken identity and a bed.
Of course, the dignified performances by Jones and Reid play a large role in helping Kaleidoscope to resist those schlock impulses. Much like he did in Berberian Sound Studio, Jones makes for a compelling—if not shifty—lead, equally capable of earning your distrust and sympathy, often within the space of the same scene. He has a natural sort of hound dog presence that’s perfect for the film’s tip-toeing approach: he draws you in with that haunted countenance, only to hint at darker, sinister depths. Likewise, Reid’s presence is a striking counterbalance: she, too, shows flashes of genuine remorse and empathy for whatever has damaged her son, but there’s also no denying the manipulative mean streak rumbling in every word she utters. Watching these two becomes genuinely compelling in a way you wouldn’t initially expect: what begins as a playful dark comedy swiftly spirals into a man’s complete psychological breakdown as he trawls through his memories and regrets.
In fact, it might spiral too much: eventually, the film’s playfulness re-emerges in a twist ending that upends the entirety of the narrative. Well, maybe—it’s sort of hard either way to determine exactly what has—and hasn’t—happened, leaving viewers firmly planted in Carl’s shoes, sharing his confusion over the events he’s experienced. If nothing else, it’s a daring move, if not a completely satisfying one: ultimately, there’s a sort of intentional hollowness here that’s a little off-putting. And that’s fine, I suppose—Kaleidoscope feels like one of those film festival movies that would leave audiences buzzing, if only because I could imagine everyone having their own interpretation of it. Ignoring that is difficult, particularly when the film is also meticulously crafted to boot: writer/director Jones’s ability to conjure up echoes of Hitchcock’s devious spirit and Polanski’s claustrophobic suspense certainly lands him on the radar of exciting new filmmakers—especially if he sticks the landing on his next outing.
Kaleidoscope will be available on DVD/Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory and IFC Midnight on May 1st. Special features include a trio of interviews with the cast and crew and the film's theatrical trailer.
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