By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Jocelin Donahue, Joe Swanberg and Melora Walters
Written and directed by Mickey Keating
In the mid-2010s, up-and-coming director Mickey Keating turned out a quartet of films–POD, DARLING, CARNAGE PARK and PSYCHOPATHS–in rapid succession, each different from the other, all confirming him capable of making much of limited resources and the right actors. After a four-year absence, he’s back with OFFSEASON, a world premiere at the current SXSW Film Festival and further proof of his ability to conjure up rich atmosphere and genuine creeps with quiet, understated skill. And a lot of fog.
There’s a lonely, isolated mood throughout OFFSEASON that seems particularly apropos for a current horror film (though its production wrapped just before the pandemic came down). It’s set in Florida, but it would not make a great ad for the state’s tourism; Keating sets the stage right at the beginning, cutting abruptly from Super-8-looking footage of frolicking vacationers to a misty, desolate widescreen stretch of beach. Throughout, the Sunshine State is made to look like an alien landscape by Keating and cinematographer Mac Fisken, and the movie’s specific island locale is just about to be closed to visitors when Marie Aldrich (Jocelin Donahue) and her boyfriend George Darrow (Joe Swanberg) arrive, in the midst of a pouring rainstorm. She’s responding to an alert that her mother’s grave has been vandalized, and it’s quickly clear that only news this dismaying would impel anyone to travel there.
OFFSEASON isn’t too heavy on plot, so more of it won’t be discussed here. The movie is more about a consistent feeling of unease, a sense that things can take a turn for the worse at any second–and they often do. It’s also about confirming everything you might expect of how ominous and foreboding a seaside town that’s bustling during the summer can feel once winter falls and all the tourists have gone home. Keating makes great use of locations, from the Gothic-tropical cemetery where Marie’s mom is buried to a local bar that seems to be the only occupied place on the island–though as you might expect, its inhabitants, with the exception of a briefly helpful fisherman played by a welcome Jeremy Gardner (AFTER MIDNIGHT), aren’t too friendly–to an open drawbridge standing like a monolith in the depths of the night.
Making her way through many of these settings alone, and with increasing desperation, Donahue engages our sympathy and concern much as she did in her similar, largely solo role in Ti West’s THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. She and Swanberg share a rapport that feels like a real couple, albeit one in which Marie hasn’t been communicating everything to George that she could, or should. Marie’s mom may be in the ground, but she’s still very much a presence in Marie’s memories, and flashbacks carefully placed throughout OFFSEASON reveal why Marie left Florida behind years ago, and who or what has actually lured her back.
Even as the film’s horrors become more concrete, Keating doesn’t overexplain or overelaborate on them, and he employs a few familiar tropes that allow them to speak for themselves. Though the look is visually dense, with the machines creating the aforementioned fog working overtime (yet it always feels organic, never artificial), Keating keeps things aesthetically simple, creating his effects via imaginative use of buildings, props and his cast–the latter particularly in a shivery setpiece inside that bar, late in the story. And he maintains precise control over his visuals, with startling bursts of orange fire amidst the generally blue/grey color scheme and evocatively animated chapter titles. The chilly music by Shayfer James and sinister sound design by Shawn Duffy perfectly complement the spare, menacing veneer Keating creates; his is a welcome return to the genre, and OFFSEASON will make you think twice about getting back to taking road trips.