Directed by Elbert van Strien
Like Scottish art in general, Scottish films have a reputation for being dour: our’s is a culture that revels in miserablism. So I wasn’t surprised to see the latest homegrown horror, Repression (aka Marionette, which is a far better name), open on a sullen child psychologist, Dr McVitte, ascending a mental hospital. Then setting himself on fire. His replacement is Marianne: a therapist who has made the odd choice of moving from New York to the Scottish city of Aberdeen – memorably described by Martin Amis as the “epicentre of doom”. She says it’s because she likes rain, though all but the most trusting audience will know this kind of flippancy means it’s tragic backing story time. Aptly, she spends her time working with traumatised kids. These include a girl worried about her sick parents and having fantasies about being eaten. Then there’s Manny: a quiet boy, socially ostracised because of what he “can do”.
In this case, he does horror movie drawings – you know the type, lots of dead bodies and excessive use of the colour black. What’s eerier is they come to life. Does he have foresight? Or is he making them happen? It isn’t the most novel premise, yet surprisingly Repression rarely feels trope-heavy. Much of this comes from Elijah Wolf, who plays Manny with the apathy and resignation of a bored, embittered god, instead of embracing the usual monotone creepy kid cliches. It’s annoying that we barely see him for much of it. On the other hand, it’s admirable that the writers want to ensure we get the time to know Marianne as she struggles to set up a new life for herself. Another patient shows us she’s good at her job, bits about her life in the states, and even her enjoyably sweet relationship with second-hand bookseller Kieran. Thekla Reuten is also convincing in the role – doing much of the heavy lifting in the later sections where she’s unravelling.
Unfortunately, this intimate focus doesn’t quite work for the film, and results in pacing problems. Marianne’s character isn’t complex enough for a perspective piece, and the focus on her personal life over the genre elements means the nature of the threat is ill-defined. With Manny and her barely sharing any scenes then the source of tension goes underdeveloped. Heck, for the first hour, the horror elements even feel superfluous against Marianne’s budding relationship with Kieran (even if their romance scenes are quite sweet) and references to philosophical conundrums. Shrodigger’s Cat, the mind-body problem, if God is good – with the usual cinematic smart people soundbites. It’s good to see a film wrestle with the big issues, such as free will, yet with the main plot plodding along at such a slow pace, it feels like an indulgence. Some of the best supporting cast members are also underutilised – with the ever-reliable Peter, Mullan, Bill Patterson, and Rebecca Front reduced to cameos.
However, I was pleasantly surprised by how grim the movie got for some of the second half – with the story going places that I didn’t think it would have the audacity to go. Even if it took a long time, when Repression fully commits to its concepts around control and determinism, it’ll definitely make an impression. The final thirty minutes or so will likely infuriate and delight audiences in equal measures: a stretched-out but admirably unconventional piece of exposition that bends space, time and reality. It’s never especially scary per se, and what moments of intensity we have are relatively short-lived, but it’s better than the sum of its parts. The events themselves didn’t entirely work for me – it resembles an infamous ending used elsewhere and raises as many questions as it answers. Still, van Strein is a good enough visual storyteller to land the most important emotional punches, building nicely to a moment of catharsis.
Elsewhere, we get plenty of outdoor shots of the unconventionally attractive Aberdeenshire: vast empty landscapes, ruins and accurately shit weather. It’s a prime horror location that has been historically underused outside Sawney Bean: Flesh of Man and Redwood Massacre flicks. Combined with the sheets of rain, subtle Jazz horns give a tartan noir feel to proceedings, though these are awkwardly mixed with string-heavy classical arrangements and ethereal piano: almost like it’s the work of several composers who couldn’t compromise. All themes work individually, but they make for a tonally uneven soundscape. Still, coupled with some of the moments of light in the darkness, it makes for a Scottish film that isn’t all doom and gloom. And some people are saying it’s samey.
Repression is available to stream.