By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Mamoudou Athie, Phylicia Rashad and Amanda Christine
Directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, Jr.
Written by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, Jr. and Stephen Herman
Starring Mireille Enos, Peter Sarsgaard and Joey King
Written and directed by Veena Sud
The first two WELCOME TO THE BLUMHOUSE titles that the fear factory premiered this week on Amazon see the company straying from pure horror. One of these movies is an intense science-fiction drama, the other a domestic suspenser, and both continue the company trend of keeping the scale small while aiming for big thrills–one of them quite a bit more successfully than the other.
Coincidentally, both BLACK BOX (pictured above) and THE LIE begin with video footage of the protagonists’ daughters as infants, in happy times with their parents that are fated not to last into the movies’ present day. Once the brief home footage ends in BLACK BOX, we discover young Ava (Amanda Christine) now taking care of her father Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) almost as much as he takes care of her. Suffering both long- and short-term amnesia in the wake of a car accident that killed his wife, Nolan needs Post-Its to remind him of daily tasks and the wise and understanding Ava to coach him about important duties. The loving but sometimes strained relationship between Nolan, struggling to put his life back together and care for his daughter, and Ava, who can’t help being frustrated with him sometimes, forms an empathetic base for the fantastical side of the story.
That emerges when Nolan decides to seek the help of Dr. Brooks (Phylicia Rashad), who works at the same hospital as his best friend Gary (Tosin Morohunfola) and has developed the “black box,” a device that promises to jumpstart Nolan’s memories, placing him back inside them. (BLACK BOX thus echoes both Christopher Nolan’s MEMENTO and INCEPTION; our protagonist’s name was not random.) Inevitably, his mental regression back to past highlights of his life comes with some glitches: the faces of everyone at his wedding are blurred, and a contorted figure keeps crab-walking after him with menacing intent. We get the sense that Nolan’s memories aren’t going to be as pleasant as he presumes, and when one black box session takes him back to an apartment that seems completely unfamiliar, it sets the stage for a major story turn that throws Nolan’s entire past into question.
As twists go, this is a pretty good one, opening up the question not only of how it will impact the story to come, but how Nolan is going to deal with it on a personal level. Although director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, Jr., who scripted BLACK BOX with Stephen Herman, takes the opportunity to stage trippy, disorienting and scary ventures into the mindscape, the true focus is on Nolan’s mental and emotional state in the real world. Heady themes of scientific manipulation merge seamlessly with more down-to-Earth concerns regarding family and responsibility, and Athie adroitly tackles a role that proves more multifaceted than one first expects. The sci-fi trappings are modest enough not to clash with Osei-Kuffour’s real-world concerns, and BLACK BOX represents a confident first step for the debuting feature filmmaker, and a strong showcase for the up-and-coming Athie.
By contrast, THE LIE comes with a sterling pedigree–writer/director Veena Sud and star Mireille Enos reuniting from AMC/Netflix’s acclaimed crime drama THE KILLING, with Peter Sarsgaard and Joey King rounding out the lead cast–that it doesn’t live up to. As THE KILLING was based on a Danish TV series, so THE LIE is Sud’s adaptation of a 2015 German thriller called WIR MONSTER (WE MONSTERS), with the provocative premise of how far parents will go to protect a child who has done something terribly wrong. But THE LIE (which premiered as a stand-alone feature at the Toronto International Film Festival two years ago) fritters away that promise via unconvincing development.
Enos and Sarsgaard are Rebecca and Jay Logan, divorced parents of 15-year-old Kayla (King); he’s the cool dad still playing in a band with a group significantly younger than he, and she’s a controlling helicopter mom. They become drawn back together by tragic circumstance, after Jay, driving Kayla to a dance-instruction retreat, picks up her friend Britney (Devery Jacobs), and midway through the drive, the girls insist they pull over in a remote area so they can relieve themselves. When they don’t come back and Jay goes looking for them, he finds Britney gone and Kayla distraught, having pushed Britney into a frigid, rushing river–and tearfully confessing she did it on purpose. Jay’s brand of crisis resolution involves acting like nothing ever happened, while the more calculating Rebecca, a former cop now working in corporate law, seizes the opportunity to cast suspicion on Britney’s possibly abusive father (Cas Anvar). Meanwhile, Kayla seems to recover awfully fast from the trauma of having murdered her friend…
There’s a lot of potential here for a screws-tightening familial thriller about guilt, crime and punishment, which largely goes unfulfilled. As the Logans go to increasingly implausible lengths to keep heat off of their daughter and eventually themselves, while being forced to confront their own past in familiar ways (“I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you”), THE LIE becomes an airless domestic drama with lots of brooding silences. It’s all cast in a chilly veneer by Sud and cinematographer Peter Wunstorf that doesn’t translate to shivers for the audience, with touches of obvious symbolism (Kayla reaching for an errant child’s balloon outside a window). The real problem is that if, like this viewer, you realize that there’s only one way this story can end based on what we see (or don’t) in the first act, you’ll likely feel that the bulk of THE LIE is just marking time as we wait, and wait, for the other shoe to drop.