review by Diablo Joe
Writer/Director Shan Serafin’s “The Believer” is not the sort of film horror film one encounters every day. Cerebral, low-key, and with its share of avant-garde, it still manages to unsettle and disturb. Its tone and the performances from its actors both ground it emotionally while still keeping its audience ever slightly off balance.
Lucas (Aiden Bristow) is a nuclear physicist married to Violet (Sophie Kargman). Violet at first strikes us as a slightly fragile, frigid spouse with deeply held religious beliefs. And Lucas, we come to realize, has been symbolically emasculated in every possible way. Out of a job, his health failing him in various ways, and denied by Violet both his roles as lover and father, he feels ever more helpless. He seeks answers from his wife and his therapist (Billy Zane), but this only leads to him doubting more and more his sanity and the reality of the world around him. And as his psyche spirals, the events of the film grow ever more bleak and horrifying.
“The Believer” a bleak film with a cynical tone. Firmly from Lucas’s perspective, it never gives us a hint of solace that he will overcome any aspect of his situation. Instead, we’re dragged deeper into his ever-mounting self-doubt and fragmenting psyche. Director Serafin beautifully takes us along for this journey, keeping us as much in the dark (and it does get dark, especially once the film introduces us to Violet’s parents) as Lucas. Is Violet gaslighting him as he has a genuine breakdown, or is there truth to what she says? Are we witnessing his perception of reality, or is the filmmaker similarly gaslighting us, the audience? It’s a film that leaves a lot up to interpretation, but the journey is an unsettling one, told with confidence and skill.
Much of the success of “The Believer” rests upon the talents of its small, insular cast. Bristow is excellent. He never falls into the rote tropes of a man losing his grip on his family, his career, and his sanity. It’s almost heartbreaking how hard he tries to cling to his role as a good husband, despite all of Violet’s rejections and casual deprecations. At first, Kargman’s performance comes across as stilted and, well, just poorly acted. But as the film unravels, we come to see that it is a tightly structured and precise delivery that grows more powerful and more chilling as Lucas’s hell deepens. She is terrifying and terrific in the role. As the therapist, Dr. Benedict, Zane has finally cast aside his once-hyped smoldering good looks. Baldpate now fringed with hair, his famed eyelashes hidden behind heavy glasses, and that sculptured lip cloaked by a thick mustache; he comes across as a virile, urbane Dr. Phil.
Much of the way Serafin has shot the picture keeps us, the audience, doubting the veracity of what we are seeing. We’re privy to Lucas and Violet’s home and Benedict’s office exclusively. Lucas has taken temporary work cold-call selling, of all things, nuclear shielding. It’s such an odd, absurd concept, but we somehow buy into it. But is it a sign that what we’re seeing is already a twist on reality? Small details come and go—some we notice explicitly, and some are subtle enough to have us doubting our own memory. This dream quality given to the film’s reality throws our balance off in ways a gauzy stereotype could never accomplish. The film’s visual subtlety is another one of its strong points.
Shan Serafin has crafted a nuanced, surreal (in the truest sense of that word), and effective psychological horror film in “The Believer.” With echoes of Lynch, Aronofsky, Cronenberg, and other filmmakers apparent throughout, “The Believer” will be time well spent for those who enjoy those artists’ work. And Shan Serafin will be an interesting director to watch in the future.
This devil off a reviewer gives “The Believer” 4 out of 5 imps.
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