Friday, April 24, 2015

Movie Review: It Follows

The opening scene from It Follows sets its tone of invisible dread and intriguing visuals. The stationary camera pans in a slow 360-degree spin as unsettling events unfold in the middle of a suburban Detroit neighborhood. A teenage girl flees into the street, a look of terror on her face. She runs in a circle, ignoring the questions from her perplexed neighbor, then dodges her concerned father and heads back into her house, only to emerge again a moment later and drive away in her car to the edge of a lake. As she sits by the water, she calls her dad and gives a final farewell, then awaits her fate. What fate? We're unsure. We never see her invisible pursuer, but we are privy to the aftermath of their encounter--a violent, gruesome, lonely death. We get all we need to know about the film from this opening scene--impressive visual artistry, a notably frightening score, an unseen and formidable monster, a teenage protagonist, and the dark nights of a deteriorating Michigan.

It Follows transitions to Jay (Maika Monroe, in a phenomenal performance), a young woman enjoying the slow pace of suburban summer life. She has a new boyfriend, Hugh, and they're having enough fun together and share a strong enough mutual attraction to finally lead to sex. After their encounter, she lies on her stomach in the backseat of his classic car, letting her hand drift over the flowers and weeds in the abandoned Detroit lot, talking aloud about nothing in particular, relaxed and sentimental. This peaceful life is destroyed in a moment when Hugh drugs her, ties her to a wheelchair, brings her to an abandoned building, then shows her something he has passed on to her through their copulation--a specter, a phantom, slowly walking straight for her a steady pace, invisible to everyone else, but nevertheless real and dangerous. It won't stop its pursuit until she passes it on to someone else through sex, or it has killed her. Her peaceful adolescent reality and innocence is gone, replaced with the constant dread of an impending danger. Where did it come from? Why is it following her? How can she stop it? There are no clear answers here--there is only the monster, and it will not stop.

What I appreciate about It Follows and filmmaker David Robert Mitchell's previous film, The Myth of the American Sleepover, is its portrayal of teenagers and youth culture in America. The adults and authorities don't seem to be fully present in the film, and that's certainly intentional. The actions in the final climactic scene with the monster seemingly should prompt an adult response, but they just...don't. Or at least not a response one we're made privy to, mostly because it doesn't matter: this is a teen's narrative. Jay's mother is never full seen--her face is always just out of focus or off camera. The young protagonists adequately fend for themselves, and while some might wonder "where are the adults in this?" I think the events of the film play out in a realistic manner, as much as invisible STD zombies could be considered "realistic." (Yes, I'm calling it the STD zombie.) Each scene makes sense and is necessary for the plot to move forward, and each action and reaction from the characters is a natural outcome from the situation.

I think Mitchell's films capture the systemic abandonment of youth by adults in our culture. Much like the abandoned and tottering Detroit homes, the era of the 1950s suburban nuclear family is crumbling and antiquated. Teenagers are not only left to their own devices by parents, but they prefer it that way--it is the new normal. Adults, both in It Follows and real life, are often seen as incompetent and unable to help (at best) or an uncaring or dangerous power (at worst). As a youth pastor, I've been allowed to see glimpses of this underground youth culture, this world of teenagers when adults are not around, their conversations and actions, their dreams and fears. These are teenagers who deal with and fight against very real and adult subjects, sexuality in particular. Maika Monroe as Jay does a fantastic job of being both adult and childlike, responsible and immature. Sometimes she curls up in tears due to the horrors of her situation; other times, she faces the dread with an emotional-but-grounded confidence. The other teen actors do likewise. Mitchell has somehow tapped into the underground youth world in his films in a unique and realistic way, and I can't wait to see what he makes next.

It Follows offers more than just a sex-equals-death trope in the vein of past horror films. The sexuality of It Follows is more holistic, a sex that transcends the hookup culture's paradigm that "it's all just biology." The act of sex connects and unites two people in more ways than just physical interaction or the sharing of fluids--it intertwines their stories and fates, leaving lasting impressions and a deep connection, what evangelical pastor Matt Chandler recently called the "mingling of souls" in his recent book. While the sexuality portrayed in It Follows doesn't necessarily hold to a Christian worldview, it does suggest that sex involves more than bodies. Sex is also not without bodies, a sort of Gnostic spiritualization of sex that considers purity or holiness as being separated from our flesh. Bodies and souls, fears and dreams, are brought together in the two-become-one act of sex.

While the clear allegory lies in its connection between sexuality and consequence, the themes and ideas of It Follows move beyond moral messages about the dangers of sex and into the lingering wounds of the past. It Follows is wholly nostalgic. The decaying neighborhoods and abandoned buildings of Detroit, the 80s-era TVs and cars, the pulsing soundtrack--its all reminiscent of a bygone era, a relic from the past. Jay is haunted not only by the specter, but by the loss of a father. He is only present in Jay's family through faded pictures, and though we are unsure of the circumstances behind his absence, the pain quietly persists. We can run from this pain for a season, but it always reveals itself again, sometimes in unexpected ways. Beyond the pain of our past, the slow-moving phantom also represents our own mortality. Death is coming for each of us, and though it lingers, it will eventually catch us all. How we choose to face our own death--whether with fear and trembling, naive denial, or a quiet confidence--reveals our character and the foundation of our hope.

The "it" of It Follows is, at once, the consequences from our sexual actions, the lingering wounds of our past, and the impending certainty of death. Mitchell has crafted a new horror classic, one which takes a simple idea and builds upon it with remarkable craftsmanship and ambition. Its original ideas and haunting images remain in your mind, trailing you at a persistent pace, unable to leave you alone as you contemplate what follows.

Caution: It Follows contains scenes of sexuality, violence, and disturbing images. While the sex scenes aren't graphic, the phantom manifests itself a few times in full-frontal nudity. This is not an erotic film, but sexuality is one of its main themes. Use caution and discernment when choosing to view any film.

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