Review by Justin Goodman
Among the paintings on display in Alienated—a Renaissance depiction of Mark the Evangelist, a possible Italian Futurist replica—the one that informs the movie most is missing: Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait In a Convex Mirror. As John Ashbery would write in his dedicatory poem 400 years after, “The glass chose to reflect only what he saw/Which was enough for his purpose: his image.” It’s a perfect summation of the double meaning Brian Ackley toys with in his second film, following the equally cloistered and dimly lit Uptown. Nate (George Katt), a painter and conspiracy theorist, becomes entrenched in marital warfare with his re-run watching wife, Paige (Jen Burry), after the appearance of a “spacecraft” in the night sky scares him into himself. Ackley truly captures the isolation and anger of alienation in the vignettes that compose the movie, while still missing the complexity and coherence that binds the paranoid mind.
Alienated begins with sketches of a man and woman engaged in typical sci-fi and horror moments (including Paige holding a smoking gun and the post-coital couple unknowingly atop a spider-like monster) over a brittle and cracking sonic soundscape. The tension, you’ll realize too late, is a gesture borrowed from Dario Argento’s ambiguous, if not metaphorical, giallo horror. Instead of traditional horror drama, moments play out like Joe Swanberg’s Mumblecore Drinking Buddies and Nights and Weekends, at whose heart is distrust and moving apart. A typical moment has Nate working on a painting only to have Paige, hugging herself, staring at a Self-Portrait In a Convex Mirror mimic, ask what it’s about. “I can’t explain it,” he says. “Then what’s the point,” she says. Prick leads to prick (why he would be giving a picture of himself to another woman) leads to drip (the woman is his dead friend’s wife) leads to blood (she’s jealous he’s never painted something for her). By the scene’s end, both characters are wan, drained of energy.
And, while I’m partially inclined to suggest a lack of energy is at fault for the tedious elements of the film, one of the main problems is an undramatic adherence to realness. Drama, to have verisimilitude, needs a veneer of reality; too much reality and you have the embarrassing moments in Alienated—like the above mentioned—where you’re unsure whether it’s amateurishness faking talent, or talent faking amateurishness. Katt and Burry swing between indignant rage and indignant silence throughout how a real couple might, were one an egomaniac who (in one scene) listens intently to theories that 9/11 was an inside job by “the Bush clan.” Worse, the ending vindicates Nate, turning Paige’s justified anger into petulance, and turning a movie that seemingly tinkered with convention into a vaguely sexist and entirely unbelievable mesh of squabbles.
As someone who had to navigate their feelings about the movie, generally incredulous about horror and sci-fi, it was a shame. Which is the other problem. The cinematography, always spacious and dark and obscured, is brilliant. At one point, Paige is simmering in the bath from a fight. Nate comes in to pee. The scene ends with a shot of her varied expressions of impatience as his gold stream wavers in front. But the humor is quickly negated. Not because of a meaningful conflict of emotions, but due to dialogue that vies to be greater than its suburban environment allows for. At its worst, ironically, this takes shape as the blind neighbor Griffin, played by the late Taylor Negron to whom the film is dedicated. His mix of laconic, lazy horror oracle and pseudo-enigmatic declarations about love and respect are what happens when the drudgery of high literature meets the monotony of pulp.
Mark the Evangelist is represented in art by a winged lion because of the power of his words. The representation in Nate and Paige’s house shows the lion sleeping at the foot of the placid, writing Mark though. It’s an image incongruous with the jagged, geometric painting in their living room. Alienated doesn’t find a balance between these extremes. In its bipolar highs and lows it fits neatly with John Ashbery’s portrait of the self-portrait, as it does with Nate’s portrait that is a self-portrait: “It must move/as little as possible. That is what the portrait says.” How disappointed you will be to find it’s like a doubt disproved, Paige curled shocked in the corner of the red and blue flashing bedroom. As if the only solution to domestic conflict were to be correct. Isn’t it odd how, only minutes earlier, she accused “you’re just interested in the spectacle of it all.” How, predicting the convex lens, he responded, “No I’m interested in the evidence. I’m interested in the facts?”