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on Jan 24, 2012

The first 70 minutes or so of Frank Rinaldi’s Sundowning is a fascinating film, a creepy-as-fuck, measured look at some sort of mental breakdown. It’s the kind of film where you sit there for the entire time thinking to yourself, “I have no fucking clue what’s going on in this film, but I’m pretty sure the director does.” And that’s great. You don’t always have to know what’s going on, as long as the audience feels like they’re in capable hands.

Shannon Fitzpatrick stars as Shannon, a woman that’s apparently being kept in an apartment by Susan (Susan Chau), a matronly figure who dictates the events of Shannon’s day, every day for nearly 2 years.

The film is nearly silent as Shannon and Susan goes through their daily routine over and over again, but the longer we go on, the more that starts to fall apart, and the more and more sinister it gets. It becomes clear that Susan is in some way manipulating Shannon, for reasons that are unclear. That’s the creepy part.

There’s an easy comparison here to Giorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth, an equally disconcerting film about people in isolation. The framing here is more traditional, but the sound design is more ambitious, going completely silent on occasion and then ramping up enough that you wonder if they’ve blown out the speakers.

It’s incredibly effective and mesmerizing.

And then it all falls apart.

The third act represents a complete tonal shift. The film goes from 16:9 to 4:3 and (I think) from film to video. It’s also completely unnecessary. It’s one of those things where each minute of the 3rd act pulls you father and farther away from what the filmmakers worked so hard to create. It drags on and on, seemingly forever, before returning to the previous style for an explanation of what’s been going on.

A lot of people seemed to love the explanation, one person in the Q&A congratulated the director on the “bold choice” of withholding all of that information until the end. And it is a bold choice. Just not bold enough. I think the movie can easily exist without it (or maybe in a shorter version). There’s certainly a place in the framework of the film near the end of the second act where you could do the exposition. I just think going on a 20 minute detour pulls the audience out of the film. They go from being engrossed to wondering when it’ll be over. And it’s a shame, because up until that point, it’s really spectacular. The rest, it just feels like an exercise in style, an excuse to try shit.

Sometimes, you just need to cut to black and roll credits.

Filmmaker Lucas McNelly is spending a year on the road, volunteering on indie film projects around the country, documenting the process and the exploring the idea of a mobile creative professional. You can see more from A Year Without Rent at the webpage. His feature-length debut is now available to rent on VOD. Follow him on Twitter: @lmcnelly.

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