Disturbing domestic horror film EMELIE gets the SHOCK review.
As a parent, you have to often surrender to trust. You have to trust that when you hand over the keys to your kingdom, in this case your children, to someone from the “outside” world, that all will be well. Sometimes, the demands of being a parent are so heavy that, in your hunger for a brief moment of escape, you might let your guard down. You might accidentally allow your own instincts to be clouded.
You might surrender trust to the wrong person.
In the case of the harried parents in director Michael Thelin’s acclaimed festival hit EMILIE, they do indeed let their guard down just enough to let the WRONG one in…and they pay the price for their mistake.
EMELIE stars prolific Irish actress Sarah Bolger (Mary Harron’s underrated THE MOTH DIARIES, AMC’s INTO THE BADLANDS) as the title character, a young woman who seemingly appears out of the ether, assuming the guise of a kindly, highly recommended babysitter named Anna. Emelie/Anna then proceeds to worm her way into the household of a thirtysomething couple hoping to escape for an evening out, a bid to reconnect with who they are as people, as lovers and grown-ups, as opposed to forever being just “mom and dad”.
Emelie seems ideal; she’s articulate, easy on the eyes and the children seem to like her.
But then mom and dad leave. And slowly, surely, over the course of the evening, Emelie’s true nature spills out.
First, she targets the oldest son, Jacob (Joshua Rush, who matches Bolger step-for-step); a not yet pre-teen boy whose first inklings of puberty are exploited by his new sitter. In the first of many disturbing sequences, Jacob is trapped in the washroom with Emelie as she sits on the toilet and coyly asks the child to fetch her a tampon. Embarrassed and awkward, Jacob fumbles through his mother’s cabinet and eventually finds the product in question. Emelie applies it and then pulls her panties on and, smiling, exits the bathroom, leaving a toilet full of thinly diffused menstrual blood…
After the proto-erotic frisson of the encounter wears off, Jacob begins to realize that their new sitter is not “normal”. By the time she sacrifices his sister’s sweet hamster to his pet snake (an unsettling but, um, tastefully handled sequence) and forces the children to watch their parent’s graphic sex-tape (again, disturbing and yet handled with skill and care), Jacob knows that Emelie is more than just eccentric, more than just a bit odd.
She’s crazy. She’s dangerous. And worse…
The suspense ratchets endlessly in EMELIE, with every atrocity Bolger administers on the children being more hideous than the last. And, admittedly, as a parent, I had difficulty watching the film. Director Thelin smoothly snaps the long-held cinematic taboo of exploiting children, using Emlie’s not-so-funny games to gradually strip these wide-eyed urchins of their innocence, unraveling in a few hours the protective seal of safety that mom and dad had worked so hard to build. It’s unnerving, a bit heartbreaking and hard to endure, like a Grimm fairy tale bleeding out in suburbia.
We eventually learn, in yet another deftly handled sequence, enough of Emelie’s tortured history to know that some sort of systematic abuse has perverted her enough to inspire some sort of maniacal quest to inflict similar tortures on others. It’s not enough to make us empathize with her, nor is it designed to do so. Rather, it simply, chillingly, reminds that real evil is not bred in the bone, it’s made…
EMELIE is minimalist in its narrative and certainly restrained in how explicitly realized its shocks are (great, moody ambient score by Phil Mossman too). And yet I found this to be one of the most twisted and grueling of modern horror movies; an open-ended snapshot of madness that, like Robert Eggers’ THE WITCH, refuses to answer all of its questions easily and leaves you more than a bit disoriented.
Highly recommended, sophisticated horror.
EMELIE opens in limited US theaters tomorrow.