Slamdance Movie Review: ‘The Severing’

Slamdance Film Festival 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Mark Pellington is a renowned music video director, having worked with such acts as Bruce Springsteen, U2, Leonard Cohen, Pearl Jam, INXS, Demi Lovato, and Imagine Dragons. He’s also done TV work, as well as some feature films, including ARLINGTON ROAD (1999), THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES (2002), HENRY POOLE IS HERE (2008), and THE LAST WORD (2017). Despite a successful and varied career, it’s difficult to imagine he’s ever had a project as bizarre as his latest “experiential” film, which was named the “Spotlight Feature” at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival.

Billed as “Pina” meets “Saw”; however, it’s difficult to believe a Pina Bausch production would offer similar style, and it’s clear that the gore and violence here is imagined and implied rather than sprayed across the screen. However, some empathy must be allowed for whomever was tasked with marketing Mr. Pellington’s film. It’s 70 minutes of interpretative dance. And I do mean interpretative. There is no story playing out, but rather sequences of dancers in what the one-time narrator describes as a fourth dimension.

These sequences are abstract and oblique. Nothing is obvious. In fact, there is no attempt to draw us in. We are purely observers and interpreters. The title cards/text insertions are purposefully obtuse rather than helpful or inviting. The opening note in the films states that we never open ourselves to others, keeping instead to our protective shell. This sentiment is followed by dancing that represents grief, pain, sex, and other emotions.

The dancers are body-covered in chalky make-up and grease paint, while wearing non-descript skimpy costumes that more resemble tattered rags. Dark and shadowy is the best description for the lighting and you won’t find movie sets more stark than the few used here. Six dancers receive credit, and sequences feature one, two, or four dancers at any given time. These dancers are extraordinary in their athleticism, and ability to contort and twist. The same solo dancer is featured in the opening and closing, and she is especially impressive in her loose-jointed and intense floor writhing, often reaching positions that most of us can’t fathom. Every scene is shot in slow-motion, and all are accompanied by an electronic score that drones on in its sameness. Nina McNeely is the featured choreographer, and the dancing/movement is quite something to behold. We only wish it was a bit more accessible and certainly a bit shorter in run time.

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