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Movie Review: “SEPARATION” and the wrong kind of anxiety

Monday, May 3, 2021 | Reviews

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

Starring Rupert Friend, Violet McGraw and Madeleine Brewer
Directed by William Brent Bell
Written by Nick Amadeus and Josh Braun
Open Road Films/Briarcliff Entertainment

The SEPARATION is from dramatic and narrative logic in the latest film by director William Brent Bell (THE BOY films) to pit a family against creepy puppet characters come to life. Or is it a vengeful female spirit? The basic nature of SEPARATION’s supernatural evil isn’t even clear in one seriously confused movie.

Scripted by Nick Amadeus and Josh Braun, SEPARATION is pitched as a horrific variation on the classic divorce drama KRAMER VS. KRAMER, right down to a scene of a newly single father trying to make breakfast for his child, and the casting of Mamie Gummer, daughter of KRAMER’S Meryl Streep. She plays Maggie, mother of 8-year-old Jenny (Violet McGraw), who has become legitimately annoyed that her husband Jeff (Rupert Friend), a cartoonist whose most creatively and financially productive days are long behind him, won’t step up and take more responsibility for supporting them. The movie stacks the deck in his favor for the target audience by making him a purveyor of horrific entertainment like a group of grotesque illustrated characters called The Grisly Kin. It’s also the kind of film where Jeff has a complete series of Grisly Kin figures in Jenny’s room, and has gifted her with a satanic-looking jester doll, and wonders why her sleep is troubled.

Anyway, Maggie decides to leave Jeff and seek sole custody of Jenny, with the backing of her wealthy father Paul (a clearly better-than-the-material Brian Cox). She thus becomes a vicious harridan who, in SEPARATION’s view, deserves the violent fate that befalls her a third of the way into the film. Jeff is left to care for Jenny, not quite alone, as he has the help of adoring nanny Samantha (Madeleine Brewer). But strange things begin happening in their Brooklyn brownstone that suggest Maggie’s angry essence is still floating around, manifesting as a black-clad ghost and determined to claim Jenny for herself. And yet, Jeff has visions of his twisted artistic creations coming to menacing life before Maggie’s demise, and the film can’t make up its mind if or why the home was already haunted beforehand.

It doesn’t help that the scare tactics largely amount to tepid now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t tricks and nightmare scenes; there’s even a nightmare within a nightmare (seriously? What year are we in?). One bit involving an evilly grinning contortionist creature coming after Jeff does pack a bit of chill, lessened by the fact that here, as elsewhere, Friend’s reactions seem far less scared and concerned than they should be. Perhaps the Grisly Kin and their physical manifestations are meant to be extensions of his own inner darkness? After all, a good chunk of SEPARATION deals with him getting a new job with a comics company whose owner sees in him “someone with a deep understanding of misery” and encourages him to plumb the most nightmarish depths of his psyche.

The filmmakers don’t engage with any of Jeff’s potential dark side, though, since that would get in the way of presenting him as a blameless man beset by a nasty woman, both before and after she dies. Gummer struggles to bring some humanity to her gracelessly written role, and Brewer, who enacted one of the genre’s most intriguing recent heroines in CAM, is similarly constrained as the subservient Samantha–who, of course, at one point plants a kiss on Jeff, which he, of course, nobly rejects. She’s also involved in a latecoming plot twist that further muddies up the question of who we’re supposed to be scared of here.

By this point, as SEPARATION is heading past the 100-minute mark, it has fallen apart into a mess of muddled opportunities. The film was shot over two years ago, and the presence of two credited cinematographers suggests serious reshoots were undertaken to get the material into some kind of logical shape. About the best that can be said of SEPARATION is that its New York City locations are genuine; no establishing shots in Manhattan and the rest shot in Canada here. Too bad these are about the only things in SEPARATION that feel authentic.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.