The Veil

The Veil

The Veil

United States. Directed by Phil Joanou, 2016. Starring Jessica Alba, Thomas Jane, Lily Rabe, Aleksa Palladino, Reid Scott. 93 minutes. 2/10

On the evening of November 18, 1978, more than 900 men, women and children died at the “Jonestown,” a commune in Guyana populated by members of an American cult, the Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ. They died on the orders of the cult’s founder and leader, Jim Jones, who was himself found dead of a gunshot wound, apparently self-inflicted. The incident would stand as the largest deliberate mass loss of American civilian life until the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Over thirty-five years later, the “Jonestown Massacre” casts a long shadow over American culture. Screenwriter Robert Ben Garant (best known as co-creator of the Night at the Museum franchise and member of the seminal ’90s sketch-comedy troupe the State) and director Phil Joanou draw heavily from the Jonestown legend for The Veil, with Jones-analogue Jim Jacobs (Thomas Jane) overseeing his cult’s murder-suicide in 1984. That incident had a single survivor: five-year-old Sarah Hope. Fast-forward to the modern-day, when the adult Sarah (Lily Rabe) joins aspiring filmmaker Maggie Price (Jessica Alba) on a trip to the cult’s long-abandoned compound, in a search for answers and closure, not just for Sarah but for Maggie, who has her own connection to the massacre.

This should sound terribly familiar, and not just in a “ripped from the headlines…of the late ’70s” way: Ti West’s 2013 film The Sacrament also involved documentarians and a thinly-fictionalized portrayal of Jonestown, but the two films don’t have enough in common to justify calling The Veil a rip-off. While West’s film examines the cult dynamic from a psychological standpoint, Joanou and Ben Garant deliver a straightforward supernatural thriller.

The biggest difference between the two films is that The Sacrament is pretty good and The Veil just plain sucks. While Jim Jacobs’s doctrine of “unpinning” the human spirit from the body (which he overtly ties to the Crucifixion) intrigues, the filmmakers never actually do anything interesting with their ideas. By the film’s halfway mark, you discover you’re watching a typical jump-scare-laden slasher movie with standard-issue stupid characters and a moronic end-twist.

The cast—largely made up of attractive young specimens like Alba, Rabe, Aleksa Palladino (Boardwalk Empire), Jack De Sena (Avatar: The Last Airbender), Shannon Woodward (The Riches), and Reid Scott—do they best with what little they’re given, with varying results. Rabe, a veteran of the various iterations of American Horror Story, impresses the most: the one or two scenes that have any power do so largely because of her performance.

Jane counterbalances this with an over-the-top performance–imagine Jim Morrison as a Pentecostal tent-revival preacher and you’ll be close–that barely seems to belong in the same movie with the rest of the cast. I still haven’t decided whether it’s brilliant or idiotic. Or both. Regardless, he commands every scene with a potent combination of unfettered charisma and ridiculous accent. You don’t dare take your eyes off him.

Unfortunately, not even Jane’s diabolical acting can prop up this limp effort. There’s simply no compelling reason to bother with it.

The Veil poster

Lindsay Burdge stars in THE MIDNIGHT SWIM

The Midnight Swim

United States. Directed by Sarah Adina Smith, 2014. Starring Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer Lafleur, Aleksa Palladino. 84 minutes.

Filmmaker Sarah Adina Smith takes a look at the complex family relationships between women in her feature-length début. Dr. Amelia Brooks disappears during a dive in the lake she lives near, the lake she spent much of her adult life studying and defending. Her body never found, she is presumed dead. Her daughters June (Lindsay Burdge), Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), and Isa (Aleksa Palladino, co-star of Boardwalk Empire and Halt and Catch Fire and singer of the indie-rock band Exitmusic), estranged from their mother and each other, return home to put her affairs in order, but each finds the environment–the town, the house, the memories, and of course, the lake itself–pulling at them in different ways. Especially June, who has her own obsession with the lake that claimed her mother’s life.

The Midnight Swim strikes me, first and foremost, as a somewhat existential character study, examining how women relate to each other as family members (half-sisters, in this case); a sort of female version of The Corridor, without the cosmic/Lovecraftian implications. The relationships take center stage and the film’s strongest, most memorable moments–June singing her mother’s favorite lullaby, leading into a re-enactment of a verbally abusive rant, for example, or a Spontaneous Stupid Dance set to “Free to Be…You and Me”–focus on the dynamic between the sisters and Amelia (the latter only ever seen on video, in the form of a “Save the Lake” political ad).

Smith’s script puts an emphasis on showing over telling, and she implies many of the characters’ defining traits instead of stating them outright (for example, brief comments Isa makes when discussing her sudden hook-up with June’s childhood crush suggests a history of bad, probably abusive, men). This generally works to the film’s advantage (except for one major semi-revelation toward the end of the film that really needed to come earlier). The performances are uniformly excellent, with Burdge, Lafleur, and Palladino having an easy chemistry with each other, and with Ross Partridge as the aforementioned crush.

However, while I wouldn’t call Midnight Swim an overt horror film, it does include elements that can only be described as supernatural, and much of film’s overall effect is, if not actually nightmarish, then dreamlike in an unsettling way. Unfortunately, while I appreciated some of these elements (the cinematography of several night scenes; Ellen Reid’s superb, discomfiting ambient score), I didn’t think they worked as well in the overall context of the film. Occasionally, Smith simply seems to be trying too hard to be strange or obscure. The best example is the final sequence, which, beautiful though it is, seems somewhat at odds with the rest of the movie.

Doing the film no favors is the film’s narrative structure, which, I must state with a heavy sigh, bases itself around a found-footage conceit. (June’s making a documentary, and her sisters seem content to let her record everything that goes on around her, except for the one token “turn the camera off” scene.) The format doesn’t add anything of value to the film, creates a level of disconnect between the characters and the audience (I very rarely see people holding video cameras in real life, so why is every third horror or indie film I watch about people who apparently have the damned things surgically grafted to their palms?) and makes the film’s c0founding final moments even less credible.

That all being said, when The Midnight Swim works it really works. I think I would have liked it better if it had jettisoned the weirder elements and was only about the family, but hey, that’s life.