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The cult that gathered around Shane Carruth – the polymath writer-director-performer who dreamed up the brilliant and baffling Primer and Upstream Colour – will want to reconvene for this effective low-key chiller in which Carruth takes top acting billing, while handing directing duties to Billy Senese.
With its twin-track storytelling, Senese’s film owes less to Carruth’s filmography than to upmarket TV fare such as True Detective and the recent Unbelievable. In one narrative line, a conflicted, corner-cutting psych-ward doctor (Carruth) engages with a hulking patient (Jeremy Childs) who revived in the morgue after an apparently successful suicide attempt; in the other, a medical examiner (Bill Feehely) heads into the field to investigate how this John Doe got on the slab, and how he got up off it.
Sensing any answer might test credibility, Senese establishes a detailed, lived-in medical backdrop, staffed by overstretched pros who, while doing their best for some deeply traumatised individuals, realise they and their charges are at the mercy of forces they cannot control.
There’s not much within this universe that’s truly original. The psych ward’s long corridors – whether deathly empty or overrun with chaos – are a horror staple; John Doe’s gift/curse inverts that of John Coffey, the life-giving lifer of The Green Mile; and Doe’s fascination with spirals is one of several lifts from post-millennial J-horror.
What’s crucial is how Senese and cinematographer Andy Duensing film these elements: patiently, attentively, with a feel for space and ambient atmosphere, and a reluctance to offer easy explanations that invites tantalising metaphorical readings, and counts as recognisably Carruthian.
As a standalone performer, Carruth is very solid, and in fact smartly cast as an authority figure who proves at least as inscrutable-to-difficult as those in his care. Yet the attention from doctors and camera alike makes this an even better showcase for the previously unnoticed Childs, a bug-eyed, upright presence whose agonised primal screams are going to sound bloodcurdling coming through the right cinema sound system.
• The Dead Center is released in the UK and in the US on 11 October.
Source: The Guardian
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