Movie Review: ‘Separation’

Review by James Lindorf

“Separating” is the latest film by veteran horror director William Brent Bell. Bell is best known for 2006’s “Stay Alive” and 2016’s surprisingly successful creepy doll feature “The Boy.” Looking to put a spin on the genre “Separation” is Bell’s attempt at blending the 5-time Oscar-winning “Kramer vs. Kramer” with the popular horror franchise “Insidious.” The once-great marriage between lawyer Maggie (Mamie Gummer) and currently unemployed artist Jeff (Rupert Friend) has soured. Now the once devoted couple is in the midst of a bitter custody battle for 8-year-old Jenny (Violet McGraw). When Maggie is killed in a car accident, Jeff and Jenny try to piece together a new life. Not content to let the small family be, Maggie’s father, Paul (Brian Cox), sues for custody, and babysitter Samantha (Madeline Brewer) tries to be the new woman of the house. If that isn’t enough, strange, twisted, and frightening characters from Jeff’s comic “Grisly Kin” begin coming to life at night. “Separation” will start a limited theatrical run starting on April 30th.

Jeff is essentially Robin Williams’ character from “Mrs. Doubtfire.” Collecting a check is less important than doing it his way. He loves Jenny but only focused on how much fun they had. That left Maggie to be the cook, the nurse, and the one to chase nightmares away, leaving many new responsibilities for the suddenly single father. You would think most of that could be handled by nanny Samantha, but she does little more than try to advance her too close to be completely professional relationship with Jeff prior to Maggie’s death. “Separation” may have a tough time convincing viewers that it’s not at least a little misogynistic. There isn’t a bad guy to be found. You may not mesh with their personalities, but they are generally hard-working, caring, and doing what they think is best. On the other hand, the women are written as bitter, conniving harpies instead of well-rounded characters. This may have been brought up and addressed by having the name on Jenny’s hot chocolate at Starbucks being “Princess Butt-Kicker” in an attempt to say girls are cool too.

Troubled marriage/divorce, custody battle, infatuated babysitter, single father, each of these typically drama or thriller genre ideas would be great to pair with horror. The problem is that screenwriters Nick Amadeus and Josh Braun decided to incorporate every idea into “Separation.” Instead of focusing on one idea, they presented a crowded script with exciting but overwrought and underdeveloped ideas.

Violet McGraw may give the best performance in the film because she doesn’t have the jaded outlook like the adults. It is unlikely she is there to collect a check and is most likely giving the movie her best effort. There isn’t a single terrible performance in the film, but they are primarily one-note or easily forgettable. Everyone involved has been better in other things.

The one thing that can save a horror movie when the script isn’t working and aren’t getting great performances is building tension and paying it off with some notable deaths. Unfortunately, “Separation” fails on both fronts. There are two deaths approximately 80 minutes apart. That is fine, bodies don’t need to rain from the sky to make a great horror movie, but without fun or memorable kills, every other element needs to be that much more on point. The bigger problem is the lack of tension.

Not once did the hair on the back of my neck stand up. There was no anxious tightening in my chest because Amedeus, Braun, and Bell could not elicit anything boarding on terror. The problem is in the editing. You never know if the ghostly encounter will be a flash or something more substantial. Often, we don’t know if this is real life, a dream, or a dream within a dream until it is over. No matter how long it is or its setting, 95% of them end the same way with nothing of substance happening. The best horror moment comes from the twisted jester-like figure played by a talented contortionist, but it isn’t nearly enough.

“Separation” has a good premise that wasn’t properly executed. There is lots of interesting imagery and good enough performances. It is an easy watch with the 107 minutes going by quickly. You could do a lot worse than “Separation.” Still, maybe if the creators spent less time doing Ayahuasca and more time working on the movie, it would be less chaotic and have more bite.

Rating: R (Brief Drug Use|Some Violence|Language)
Genre: Mystery And Thriller, Horror
Original Language: English
Director: William Brent Bell
Producer: Jordan Beckerman, William Brent Bell, Jesse Korman, Jordan Yale Levine, Clay Pecorin, Russ Posternak
Writers: Nick Amadeus, Josh Braun
Release Date: April 30th, 2021
Runtime: 1h 47m
Production Co: The Machine Room, Yale Productions, RainMaker Films, Post Film

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