Screwdriver

SCREWDRIVER

The minimalist drama/thriller Screwdriver, which starts doing the festival rounds this week, maintains a low, vibrating level of tension for almost its whole running time. Most of the tension is in the face of lead actress AnnaClare Hicks, who invests her character with vulnerability tied into self-hating anxiety. Hicks plays Emily, a young woman from down south whose marriage has suddenly fallen apart. Not knowing what to do, she takes a train to California to stay for a week or so with Robert (Charlie Farrell), a guy she remembers from high school. Robert is married to hard-charging corporate lady Melissa (Milly Sanders); she works at a pharmaceutical company, he does psychological research. It’s not long before we begin to suspect this couple have more on their agenda than simply giving Emily a place to bunk.

Screwdriver is essentially a three-hander — Emily’s estranged husband puts in a brief appearance — that might work just as well as a play. It’s sufficiently cinematic, though; director/co-writer Cairo Smith uses the wide, wide frame to convey Emily’s isolation in her hosts’ well-scrubbed home (between this and the recent Watcher, you may get the impression that white decor hides suffocating repression and control) and, here and there, disorienting jump cuts. Emily is left home alone a lot of the day while Robert and Melissa are out at work (another link to Watcher). When they return home, they seem very interested in Emily — as a person, or as a project? Melissa keeps pushing orange juice (drugged?) onto Emily, while Robert runs psychological games on her in his office.

The performances dovetail together organically; Charlie Farrell, who resembles a cross between Tom Cruise and Bradley Cooper (and uses some of Cruise’s unctuous speech patterns), provides a seemingly laid-back buffer against Milly Sanders’ high-strung, passive-aggressive Melissa. Then they seem to switch roles — he’s menacing, she’s nurturing. All of this reads to us like a concerted effort to keep Emily unsure of her perceptions, her allegiances, her very self. They seem to want to control her — early on, the forbidding Melissa discourages Emily from leaving the house or smoking — and it seems they’ve done something similar in the past. Emily may not be the first wayward young woman they’ve tried to “rehab,” but she may be the last.

Smith and co-writer Mia Vicino keep things ambiguous. The work we hear so little about, other than teasing bits of conversation about some trouble at the office, could be the root of the couple’s treatment (grooming?) of Emily. Or it could have nothing to do with this weird dynamic we watch taking shape. The shrewdly cast Farrell smuggles in a (timely) critique of Cruise and his involvement in Scientology; his patter sometimes has a familiar “Matt, you’re glib” cadence. There’s a fair amount of anti-God talk, steering the fundie-raised Emily towards a different conception of a supreme being. Ironically, the couple find it very important to emphasize to Emily that she’s free and is, in fact, her own god. Of course, they also set themselves up as the authority figures who tell her this.

I’ve avoided using the word “cult,” because, although that seems to describe the ultimate villain here, there’s enough evidence that it possibly isn’t and that Smith and Vicino may have very cleverly caught us leaning the wrong way. Once I let go of that option and started focusing on the drama actually in front of me, the narrative played more smoothly (and more chillingly). Among other things, Screwdriver says that it really doesn’t matter who’s behind the process of rewiring Emily’s head; we can see it happening, and AnnaClare Hicks somehow communicates a woman progressively broken, with the shards pricking her on the inside. Smith keeps his camera on Hicks’ face, monitoring it for changes in temperament and emotional temperature. Screwdriver is a small, underpopulated thing, and a little more sense of Emily’s life before might have helped, but it’s sharp and memorable. And it all leads to one of the most intensely, frighteningly ironic images I’ve ever seen at the end of a movie.

Explore posts in the same categories: drama, thriller

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