THE FAMILY (2021)
Directed by Dan Slater
Screening at Grimmfest Easter 2022
A group of teenagers enslaved by their own ‘parents’, living a devoted life to their God, have hope that they may one day face a world without evil Abaddon tempting their soul onto the dark path. Forbidden from venturing out of the grounds, the perimeter or which is marked with a line of animal bones, the family live on a rural smallholding where the children work the land in order to survive. When eldest boy Caleb accidentally crosses the perimeter in the woods, he begins to question the truth of his father’s strict teachings and whether their existence is truly what they’ve been led to believe.
Tense dramatic thriller THE FAMILY is an uncomfortable watch from the start, knowing that these kids are embroiled in a cult of their own ‘parents’ making. I say parents, but we don’t actually know where these kids have originally come from – my guess is they were either homeless or abducted, cos I’m pretty sure nobody would treat their own kids the way these two do. With the mother constantly pointing a rifle at the children as they toil in the field, whilst the father eagerly preaches the word of their religious book, considering himself a man made in the image of their God Etan, these kids have been brainwashed into living such a hopeless, soul destroying life filled with fear.
The film reminds me a lot of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village but the viewer is in the know early on, even though it’s not stated as such, that this is a cult affair and that what lies outside of the farmstead is a reality free of the restrictions that their parents have bound them by. When we first witness the attack by ‘Abaddon’, indicated by a disruptive, rumbling noise in the sky, it’s plain to see that the father of the family doesn’t want his imprisoned kids to know about the outside world and would rather strike fear into their hearts that the evil they read about in the good book is coming to harm them, and that their father is the only one who can protect them. They even don gas masks in panic and terror at what Abaddon might unleash. However, eldest child Caleb begins to doubt what they’ve been told, sharing his concerns with sister Abigail, and this seed of doubt begins to grow within both. However, a new addition to their flock, a young woman named Mary, begins to cloud Caleb’s judgement as he’s been told by his father that she’s been promised to him by Etan. With the poisonous manipulation by their father to date, it’s not hard to see where the film will take this storyline and this is truly when the family’s ideology begins to unravel.
The father’s iron fist in THE FAMILY is present from the get-go. A young boy named Elijah struggles to pull a wheelbarrow through the thick mud and is harshly punished and removed by the father. Though Caleb does his best to help Elijah in his time of need, even he has his limits. Not only is he frightened of what their father will do if he fights back, but also what their disobedience will do to offend their God, in which the punishment will be delivered twofold by their father as his appointed messenger. As the kids break their back in the field and are not allowed to rise above their role in life (Abigail is told she is to stick to women’s jobs when she offers to cut wood), you can see how they’re mentally ground down to be defeated. We don’t know how long the kids have been under their roof, but it’s not hard to imagine what it would be like to know nothing else and accept this man’s teachings as the truth. With Caleb coming of age and his father promising that he will become a man and a leader of the flock, you can see an element of strength enter the siblings’ lives though we’re unsure if it’ll pan out in the way we desperately want it to. By starving the kids, chaining them up and torturing them, the parents have the teens under the thumb.
I may not have mentioned the mother much up to now but she is every bit as wicked as the father. The way she appears to creep on her ‘kids’ and then goad her husband gives the impression that perhaps she is every bit to blame for this cult as he is and may, in fact, have moulded her husband into what we see in front of us. A few lines of dialogue suggest that her husband may not have been the great leader we see once before us when they first met, giving credence to the idea that she’s the manipulator and the brains behind the operation. However, there’s also moments where she appears to suggest she’s not exactly happy with what her husband does either, especially in the extra-marital sense, but again, this could be manipulation on her part of the youngsters under her care to react in a certain way.
A gripping set of performances from the parents and kids alike, in particular Nigel Bennett as the father, Benjamin Charles Watson as son Caleb and Jenna Warren as his sister Abigail, fill this close-knit film to the brim with tension, so much so that you can cut it with a knife. It’s traumatic and a struggle to watch at times as you empathise with the kids who have been so badly treated but are within touching distance of freedom if they could overcome their fear.
A tense, edge of your seat watch.